On February 11, 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported that it will not be designating critical habitat for the Florida panther. This announcement comes in response to petitions submitted to the Service by several environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity requesting designation of 3 million acres of land in south Florida as critical panther habitat.

The Service determined that critical habitat designation is not in the best interest of the Florida panther at this time but retained discretion to designate habitat at a later time. In lieu of designating critical habitat, the Service plans to implement a series of habitat conservation projects outlined in its Florida Panther Recovery Plan (PDF), which includes conservation efforts proposed jointly by environmental organizations and landowners.

In a statement (PDF) issued by the Service, the Service explained that:

A public-private partnership approach is essential for recovery of the Florida panther since so much of the panther’s habitat is privately owned. A critical habitat designation so closely following the finalization of the Florida Panther Recovery Plan would possibly undermine the long-term strategy outlined in the plan to constructively engage private landowners; State, Federal, and local agencies; and other interested groups and members of the public. This dialogue is a key part of addressing the human dimension aspects of panther recovery.

While some environmental groups support the Service’s approach to protecting the panther, which includes establishment of conservation banks that protect large parcels of habitat and implementation of wildlife crossings to help panthers safely cross roads, others do not think the Service’s plan goes far enough. On February 18, 2010, five environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit (PDF) against the government in federal court claiming that the Service has failed to protect the Florida panthers as required by the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit requests the court to remand the matter back to the Service and to order the Service to undertake prompt rulemaking in order to designate 3 million acres of south Florida land and additional land to the north as critical habitat.

The Florida panther has been a federally protected endangered subspecies since 1967. Today’s population is estimated at around 100 panthers. They occur primarily in southwest Florida.