Saving Florida panthers: Environmental groups file lawsuit to protect the endangered cats from expanded roadways

Florida panther. Credit: State Archives of Florida.

The Florida panther, an iconic and endangered animal beloved in the Sunshine State, faces threats from new road construction projects aimed to expand in Southwest Florida.

Environmental groups have now gone to court to protect the big cats, the official state animal of Florida and one of the most endangered species in the world.

In a federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida on Thursday, the groups say that a dramatic expansion of state roads 29 and 82 in Southwest Florida would “cross prime panther habitat in Collier, Lee, and Hendry counties, placing the Florida Panther at even higher risk of extinction.”

“We’re going to court because we don’t want this to be the last generation of Floridians to ever see a wild Florida panther,” according to attorney Bonnie Malloy of Earthjustice, an environmental law organization. “We need to uphold the national environmental laws that are in place to prevent that,” she said in a written statement.

Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida in the legal case, according to Malloy.

Court documents list defendants in the case as the Florida Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At issue is a dramatic road expansion. The lawsuit says that state road 29 and 82 would be doubled from two to four lanes. And parts of SR 82 would eventually be tripled.

“The segments of road designated for these expansions are located in prime panther habitat,” the lawsuit states.

Only about 120-230 adult panthers exist today. “The only existing breeding population resides in southern Florida. A primary threat to the species’ continued existence are collisions caused by increased motor vehicle traffic in prime panther habitat. In other words, the Florida Panther is on the road to extinction,” according to the lawsuit.

And the animal has been on the federal endangered species list since 1967, according to Earthjustice.

Court documents said that the Florida Department of Transportation’s construction plan to add more lanes to state roads, would result in the loss of wildlife habitat for the endangered animal.

“Any road projects further fragments their habitat. Adding more pavement for the Florida panther increases fatality rates due to vehicle collisions,” Malloy told the Florida Phoenix.

“Vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death [for panthers].”

The state’s road project aims to help increase capacity for traffic, the staff attorney noted.

Though two federal laws are referenced in the court filing, Malloy said that they are “primarily focused on the Endangered Species Act.” The lawsuit also includes the National Environmental Policy Act.

Florida panthers are now extinct throughout 95% of their original range, which extended across Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit outlines various violations and requests that the situation is fixed – to keep panthers alive.

Earthjustice Managing Attorney Tania Galloni said:

“The State Road 29 and 82 road widening projects are in the middle of critical panther habitat. Obviously, wider roads mean cars go faster, and the danger zone panthers are forced to cross increases. That will lead to more dead panthers, something this struggling population simply cannot sustain.”