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Biologist: New highways spell disaster for panthers

By Staff | Dec 31, 2019

Courtesy of FWC

The three major highways and toll systems that were approved by the state legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis at an estimated cost of $10 billion in May will be a disaster for Florida’s endangered panthers, says a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

The emails from the department were sent out in March while the state legislature was considering the massive new highway systems.

Matthew Schwartz, Executive Director of the South Florida Wildlands Association (SFWA), said his organization uncovered the emails after putting in a Freedom of Information Law request to state and federal agencies to find out if there had been any environmental reports regarding the M-CORES law, knowing there was going to be consequences for wetlands.

“Something like this hasn’t been done since the Florida Turnpike in the 1950s,” Schwartz said. “It will be a disaster for the panther.”

Through the request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the SFWA obtained emails from John Wrublik, a scientist and transportation specialist with the Planning and Resource Conservation Division in Vero Beach to Mark Cantrell, Deputy Project Leader and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in March. The emails also involve the South Florida Ecological Services Office and reference David Shindle, the Florida Panther Coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Naples Sub-Office.

The correspondence within the agency that was released by the SFWA show serious concern about the bill as it was pending before the state legislature.

Among the three new highways, Wrublik said the one that would affect South Florida is the proposed new corridor from Polk County through Collier County. This is known as the Southwest-Central Florida Connector and the state’s map for the project shows it currently going through most of Lee County through the exact route has not yet been developed.

“This was known previously as the Heartland Expressway,” Wrublik stated in the email. “I had seen this proposal several years ago but it went away. It is now, possibly, rearing its head again. This project would have very serious impacts on the Florida panther (basically a disaster for the panther as it goes through, and would open up for more development, some of the best and last remaining habitat for the panther) as well as other fish and wildlife resources and the environment.”

Wrublik said he was relaying word from other senior members in the South Florida Ecological Services Office that have “serious, serious concerns about the heartland expressway and likely the other two corridors should this legislative proposal go forward.”

In the email, Wrublik stated the “project would directly result in the loss of a significant amount of habitat types that provide some of the last remaining habitat for the endangered Florida panther and other species of listed and non-listed fish and wildlife.

2) project would indirectly result in the loss of significant amount of habitat for panther and other species by inducing new residential and commercial development by providing new access to a large acreage of undeveloped lands that currently doesn’t have a road infrastructure

3) project would significantly increase the potential for vehicle-related injuries and mortalities of panthers and other wildlife species. This is currently a serious threat to the remaining panther population and would get much worse.

4) these impacts collectively would further imperil the panther and could potentially jeopardize the species.

The issue with analyzing the project so far, Schwartz said, is “there are no routes yet.”

Schwartz said the Southwest-Central Florida Connector project will cut through the heart of the panther’s territory including areas from Lakeland County down to Naples while slicing through Lee County. “This will go through the uplands of the where the panthers live,” Schwartz said.

It’s not just the roads that will affect the panthers but also the developments that will spring up along the new highway, he said. The biggest killer of panthers are automobiles. “It will be an unmitigated disaster.”

“What we’re really looking at is the end of rural Florida,” he said.

In addition to the threats against the panthers, the Southwest Florida Wildlands Association is also concerned about the impact the highways will have on wetlands, water use and stormwater runoff.

“We basically see it as just a gift to wealthy landowners and developers paid for by Florida taxpayers.”

The highway project was championed in part by State Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton).

“Galvano has the nerve to say the concerns (of Wrublik) are overstated. He (Galvano) has no expertise in wildlife,” Schwartz said. Galvano did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment. During comments made in December with reporters regarding Wrublik’s assessment which were widely shared by media outlets, Galvano called the assessment “overstated.”

Messages left with the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis were not returned.

“Every environmental organization opposes this,” Schwartz said. That includes the Sierra Club.

“If this went up for referendum, it would fail miserably.”

The next step in the process is for the State Department of Transportation to convene a task force for each corridor comprised of representatives from state agencies and other stakeholders to evaluate and coordinate corridor analysis, environmental and land use impacts, and other pertinent impacts of the corridors. The task force must issue a written report by June 30, 2020. To the maximum extent feasible, construction of the projects must begin no later than Dec. 31, 2022, and be open to traffic no later than Dec. 31, 2030.

“Now it will go through permitting but it’s already state law that it gets built. They approved it before they studied it,” Schwartz said. “It will change the quality of the state dramatically.”

The bill approving the three new highway systems and tolls was passed by the state legislature on a 37-1 vote in the State Senate and on a 76-36 vote in the State House of Representatives. The office of State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers) and State Rep. Raymond Rodrigues (R-Fort Myers) did not return messages seeking comment. Both members voted to approve the highway bills.

The state will be holding public meetings on the projects, with the closest meeting to here in the next month taking place Jan. 30 in Arcadia at the Turner Agri-Civic Center Exhibit Hall from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.