U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Florida Panther

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U.S. Fish & Wildlife ServiceFlorida PantherNational Wildlife RefugeDraft ComprehensiveConservation Plan

Florida PantherNational Wildlife Refuge3860 Tollgate Blvd, Suite 300Naples, FL 34114Telephone: 941/353 8442Fax: 941/353 8640U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service1 800/344 WILDhttp://www.fws.govOctober 1998

Table of ContentsDraft Comprehensive Conservation PlanFlorida Panther National Wildlife RefugeIntroductionPurpose of and Need for the Comprehensive Conservation PlanOverview of the Fish and Wildlife ServiceMission of the Fish and Wildlife ServiceDescription and Mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System11222The Florida Panther National Wildlife RefugeRefuge LocationPurpose of the RefugeThe Florida Panther and Recovery ProgramHistory of the RefugeRole of the RefugeRefuge Function within the Ecosystem, and Ecosystem PrioritiesLegal Policy, Administrative Guidelines, and Other Considerations334489911Planning Issues and Opportunities 12Overview of the Public Involvement Process 12Scope of Issues, Concerns, and Opportunities 12Proposed Management DirectionRefuge MissionRefuge Vision StatementThe Proposed Management ActionRefuge Management GoalsGoals, Objectives, and Strategies to Supportthe Proposed Management Action1313131317Plan ImplementationPartnershipsAnnual Work PlansStep-Down PlansFundingVolunteersStaffMonitoring and Evaluation282828282935353618I

AppendicesAPPENDIX A.Draft Finding of No Significant ImpactDraft Environmental AssessmentPurpose and Need for ActionAlternatives Including Proposed ActionAffected EnvironmentEnvironmental ConsequencesCumulative ImpactsMitigation and Residual Impacts of the Proposed/Preferred Action3739394045566464APPENDIX B.Legal Mandates 65APPENDIX C.Scoping and Public Involvement ProcessPart 1-ParticipantsPart 2-StakeholdersPart 3-Service Responses to Issues, Concerns, and OpportunitiesPart 4-Mailing List7275757582APPENDIX D.Draft Interim Compatibility Determination 85APPENDIX E.Draft Intra-Service Section 7 Consultation 89APPENDIX F.References 93APPENDIX G.Glossary of Terms 95II

FiguresFigure 1. Organizational Chart of the Department of the Interior 2Figure 2. Refuge Vicinity Map 3Figure 3. Florida Panther Distribution Map 4Figure 4. Priority Panther Habitats Map 6Figure 5. South Florida Ecosystem Map 10Figure 6. Proposed Interpretive Foot Trail 14Figure 7. Proposed Waterbird/Wildlife Viewing Area 14Figure 8. Proposed Multi-Agency Visitor Center 15Figure 9. Lands Eligible for Voluntary Conservation Easements 16Figure 10. Hierarchy of Goals, Objectives, and Strategies 17Figure 11. Project Cost Summary 35Figure 12. Organizational Structure for Future Management 36Figure 13. Issues and Alternatives Matrix 44Figure 14. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuges within the Big Cypress Watershed 46Figure 15. Vegetative Habitats Map 48Figure 16. Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge Wading Bird Roost and Rookery Locations 50Figure 17. Refuge Facilities and Prescribed Fire Compartments with Rotation-Year 54Figure 18. Summary Table of Environmental Consequences by Alternative 63Figure 19. Survey Form 73III

IntroductionList of PreparersU.S. Fish and Wildlife ServicePersonnelJim KrakowskiDennis JordanBen NottinghamLarry RichardsonRick KanaskiAndy EllerWendell MetzenRoger BeckhamJennifer HarrisEvelyn NelsonJames A. ClarkPurpose of and Need for the Comprehensive Conservation PlanUnder the provisions of the National Wildlife Refuge SystemImprovement Act of 1997, the Service is required to developcomprehensive conservation plans for all lands and waters of the NationalWildlife Refuge System. These plans will guide management decisionsand set forth strategies for achieving the purposes of each refuge unit. TheNational Environmental Policy Act ensures that the Service will assessthe environmental impacts of any actions taken as a result of implementingthe Comprehensive Conservation Plan.This Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and appendedEnvironmental Assessment has been prepared for the Florida PantherNational Wildlife Refuge, Collier County, Florida. Its purpose is toidentify the role that the refuge will play in support of the mission of theNational Wildlife Refuge System; the South Florida Ecosystem; therecovery of the Florida panther; and the goals of the Florida PantherNational Wildlife Refuge and how it will address public concerns for moreaccess to the refuge.Alabama A&M UniversityStudent Interns:Fesaaha GrebremikalFrederick GardenierBerrien BarksPhillip WestThe draft plan outlines issues, concerns, and opportunities expressed tothe Service during a series of public meetings. It also provides adescription of desired future conditions and proposes long-range guidanceto accomplish the purpose of the refuge. This guidance is presented in alisting of refuge goals, objectives, and strategies resulting from an analysisof possible management alternatives. An environmental assessment ofmanagement alternatives may be found in Appendix A.Research ManagementConsultants, Inc.Louis J. BridgesIn its final form, the plan will serve as an operational guide for the refugemanager over the next ten to fifteen years.The plan is also needed to: provide a clear statement of the desired future conditions when refugepurposes and goals are accomplished; provide refuge neighbors and visitors with a clear understanding of thereasons for management actions on and around the refuge; ensure that management of the refuge reflects policies and goals of theNational Wildlife Refuge System; ensure that refuge management is consistent with federal, state, andcounty plans; provide long-term continuity in refuge management; and provide a basis for operation, maintenance, and capital improvementbudget requests.Panther tracksUSFWS photo by Larry W. RichardsonDraft Comprehensive Conservation Plan1

Overview of the Fish and Wildlife ServiceThe Fish and Wildlife Service is a federal bureau operated under theDepartment of the Interior, the Nation’s principal conservation agency.The Department has responsibility for most of our nationally owned publiclands and natural and cultural resources. This includes fostering wise useof our land and water resources, protecting our fish and wildlife,preserving the environmental and cultural values of our national parks andhistorical places, and providing for the enjoyment of life through outdoorrecreation.Figure 1. Organizational Chart of the Fish and Wildlife Service within the Department of the InteriorDepartment of theInteriorFish and Wildlifeand ParksNational ParkServiceIndian AffairsLands and MineralsManagementWater and ScienceFish and WildlifeServiceNational WildlifeRefugesMission of the Fish and Wildlife ServiceThe Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal organization through whichthe Department of the Interior carries out its responsibilities to conserve,protect, and enhance the nation’s fish and wildlife and their habitats forthe continuing benefit of people. The Service has major responsibility formigratory birds, endangered species, anadromous and inter-jurisdictionalfish, and certain marine mammals.Description and Mission of the National Wildlife Refuge SystemThe Service also manages the National Wildlife Refuge System, theworld’s largest collection of lands set aside specifically for the protection offish and wildlife populations and habitats. More than 510 national wildliferefuges provide important habitat for native plants and many species ofmammals, birds, fish, insects, amphibians, and reptiles. These refuges alsoplay a vital role in preserving endangered and threatened species as wellas offer a wide variety of recreational opportunities. Many have visitorcenters, wildlife trails, and environmental education programs.Nationwide, more than 25 million visitors annually hunt, fish, observe andphotograph wildlife, or participate in interpretive activities on nationalwildlife refuges.The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer anational network of lands and waters for the conservation, management,and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plantresources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit ofpresent and future generations of Americans.2Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

The Florida Panther NationalWildlife RefugeRefuge LocationThe refuge is located approximately 20 miles east of Naples, Florida. Thesouth boundary of the refuge parallels Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley); theeast boundary follows State Road 29. Private lands border the refuge onboth the north and west. The refuge shares common boundaries with BigCypress National Preserve (east) and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve(south).Figure 2. Refuge Vicinity MapDraft Comprehensive Conservation Plan3

Purpose of the RefugeThe refuge was established to conserve fish, wildlife, and plants which arelisted as endangered and/or threatened species (Endangered Species Actof 1973). In addition, the refuge was established for the development,advancement, management, conservation, and protection of fish andwildlife resources (Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956).The following two critical Service planning documents also played astrong role in defining the purpose of the refuge: First, the need and mechanism for establishing the refuge was providedin the 1985 “Fakahatchee Strand Environmental Assessment.” Thisassessment clearly states that the refuge area should be acquired for thebenefit and recovery of the endangered Florida panther. Second, the Service’s 1995 “Florida Panther Recovery Plan,” a documentprepared by the interagency panther recovery team, states that theFlorida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is essential to the survival ofthe panther and that the refuge should enhance habitat conditions for thepanther and the panther’s prey species.Thus, the refuge’s purpose has strong ties to the protection and recoveryof the endangered Florida panther and its habitat. The refuge managerwill give the panther greater consideration than other refuge species inmanagement operations, and in making compatibility determinationsrelating to secondary uses.Florida pantherPhoto by Don PfitzerThe Florida Panther and Recovery ProgramThe Florida panther, Puma (Felis) concolor coryi, is one of the mostendangered large mammals in the world. A single wild population insouthern Florida, estimated to contain 30-50 adults, is all that remains ofan animal that historically ranged throughout most of the southeasternUnited States. This population utilizes landscapes totaling approximatelytwo million acres, approximately half of which is in private ownership.Panthers utilize all available native landscapes from upland pine flatwoodand hardwood hammock forests to wetland systems dominated by wetprairies and swamp forests. For this reason, the panther serves as a“barometer” for the vast majority of other terrestrial plant and animalspecies endemic to south Florida. Preservation and proper management ofhabitats for the panther benefit vast numbers of other species indigenousto the ecosystem.The historical distribution of the panther is reported to have extendedwest to Arkansas and Louisiana (possibly into eastern Texas); eastwardacross Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and the southern parts ofSouth Carolina and Tennessee. It has also been reported that the pantherintergraded with three other subspecies of the American puma; P.c.stanleyana to the west, P.c. hippolestes to the northwest, and P.c. cougarto the northeast. There are no historical population figures available.However, using the current population density in southern Florida as abasis for projection, the minimum historical population would have likelynumbered from two to four thousand adults.Historical literature suggests that the Florida panther was extirpatedover much of its historical range by the late 1800s. Relentless humanpersecution (hunting and trapping), not habitat destruction, initially led tothe endangered status of the panther.By the time the panther was granted protection (State-1950 or Federal1973), the taxon was already in danger of extinction throughout its historicrange. Early recovery efforts focused around the Florida Game and FreshWater Fish Commission’s Florida Panther Clearinghouse and associatedfield surveys, initiated in the late 1970s. This effort focused on simplyattempting to determine if a population of panthers still existed. Theseefforts led to the documentation of the population in southern Florida.4Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Intensive radio-instrumentation and monitoring was initiated in 1981.Since that time, 70 panthers have been instrumented and monitoredproducing a vast amount of biological and demographic information.(See Figure 3) Demographically, the population appears to function similarto mountain lion populations throughout occupied areas to the west.Physiologically, the population exhibits numerous manifestationsattributed to generations of isolation and inbreeding. Environmentalcontaminants may also be contributing to some of these conditions.Threats to the panther generally fall into three basic categories:1. Population SecurityThe single, small population provides little security against extinction.In a population of this size, a disease outbreak or random fluctuationscould reduce the population to a level to which it would be unable tosustain itself.2. Population ViabilityPopulation viability is threatened by numerous physiological andreproductive abnormalities prevalent within the population. For the mostpart, these conditions are considered manifestations of isolation andinbreeding, and possible environmental contamination. These include ahigh rate of abnormal sperm (90 percent malformed), cryptorchidism (atesticle descending abnormality affecting 30-60 percent of males),congenital heart defects (including atrial septal defects), and possibleimmune deficiencies.Florida panther kittenUSFWS photo by Larry W. Richardson3. Habitat Destruction/Fragmentation/ContaminationRemaining panther habitat in south Florida is under tremendous threatfrom urban and agricultural conversion. Approximately half of theoccupied landscape is under private ownership. It appears that habitatsavailable to the radio-instrumented segment of the population in southFlorida are at, or approaching, carrying capacity for the panther.In 1986, the Florida Panther Interagency Committee was formed toprovide for a cooperative, coordinated federal/state recovery program forthe panther. The committee is made up of the Service, the National ParkService, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, and theFlorida Department of Environmental Protection.Florida panther at restPhoto by R. H. BarrettRecovery activities generally focus around the following threeareas of emphasis:1. Actions to protect, enhance, and monitor the existing population insouth Florida, its associated habitats, and prey resources.Agencies represented on the Florida Panther Interagency Committeefocus on actions on their respective lands to enhance conditions for thepanther. Approximately 900,000 acres of panther habitat on private landshave been identified in the Florida Panther Preservation Plan (Logan1993). The plan classifies habitats as either Priority 1 or Priority 2, basedon panther use and/or habitat quality (See Figure 4). Priority habitats areused most frequently by the panther and contain lands of high qualitynative habitat. Priority 2 habitats are used less frequently by the pantherand represent lands of lower quality native habitat interspersed withintensive agriculture, serving as buffer zones to urban development andother forms of encroachment. Efforts are underway to design cooperativeconservation programs that will compensate landowners for maintainingpanther habitat on their lands.2. Actions to address population health.A genetic restoration program, designed to restore natural gene flow lostbecause of population isolation for a century or longer, was initiated in1995. Eight P.c. stanleyana females were translocated into the populationfrom southwest Texas. To date, eight intercross litters containing 12verified kittens have been produced. Geneticists project that within a fewgenerations, lost genetic variability and viability will be restored.Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan5

Figure 3. Florida Panther Distribution Map6Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Figure 4. Priority Panther Habitats MapDraft Comprehensive Conservation Plan7

3. Actions to reestablish the panther into historic range areas.The current recovery objective is to achieve a minimum of three viable,self-sustaining populations within the historic range of the panther. Toreach this goal, at least two populations will have to be reestablishedpopulations. Fourteen candidate population reestablishment sites havebeen identified in a preliminary site identification/evaluation effort. Arecently completed reintroduction feasibility study within a north Florida/south Georgia candidate site, using Texas cougars as surrogate panthers,concluded that reestablishment of additional panther populations isbiologically feasible. The study concluded that there are enough habitatand prey available in this site to support a viable, self-sustainingpopulation of panthers. Based on preliminary evaluations, other candidatesites also appear capable of supporting panther populations. It nowappears that the most significant remaining obstacle to advancing pantherrecovery is effectively dealing with sociological/political issues related topopulation reestablishment, which surfaced during the study. A program toevaluate and address these issues was initiated in early 1998.The future of the panther looksbrighter now than at any time sincerecovery efforts began in the late1970s. The genetic restorationprogram proved successful and thereintroduction feasibility study hasshown that habitats exist within thepanther’s historic range capable ofsupporting reestablishedpopulations.Florida sunsetPhoto by D. W. PfitzerHistory of the RefugeThe Florida Panther NationalWildlife Refuge was established inJune 1989 by the authority of theEndangered Species Act to protectthe important Florida panther.The final recovery plan for thepanther was approved by theService in December 1981. The planstated “. . . it is vital to acquire theremainder of the Fakahatchee Strand and the prairies and cypress forestsadjacent to it to ensure that a unified management strategy can beeffected between the Fakahatchee Strand, the Big Cypress NationalPreserve, and the Everglades National Park.”The Service purchased the initial 24,300 acres of the refuge from theCollier Family (for which Collier County was named) for 10.3 millionthrough a series of fee title acquisitions. With the addition of lands fromthe Collier Land Exchange on December 18, 1996, the refuge grew toapproximately 26,400 acres.The refuge encompasses the northern origin of the Fakahatchee Strandwhich is the largest cypress strand in the Big Cypress Swamp drainagebasin. Orchids and other rare swamp plants grow within the strand’sinterior. The refuge contains a diverse mix of pine forests, cypress domes,marl prairies, hardwood hammocks, and lakes surrounded by swamps.In addition to the panther, 20 other species of animals are found in therefuge vicinity that are state or federally listed as endangered, threatened,or species of special concern. The Florida black bear, alligator, wood stork,roseate spoonbill, limpkin, eastern indigo snake, Florida grasshoppersparrow, Everglades mink, and Big Cypress fox squirrel are a fewexamples. Other resident wildlife include whitetail deer and feral hogs,which are important panther prey species.8Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Role of the RefugeThe Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge was established under theauthority of the Endangered Species Act to protect Florida pantherhabitat. The refuge receives heavy use by this critically endangeredspecies. During any given month, 5-11 panthers utilize refuge habitatareas. The refuge contains significant portions of the home ranges ofseveral panthers and also functions as a vital habitat linkage for panthersutilizing adjacent portions of the Big Cypress National Preserve andFakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Several female panthers have dennedand raised kittens on the refuge in recent years. The refuge plays animportant role in the restoration of the South Florida Ecosystem.Common moorhenUSFWS photo by Larry W. RichardsonRefuge Function within the Ecosystem, and Ecosystem PrioritiesThe South Florida Ecosystem encompasses more than 16.5 million acres ofrichly diverse habitats covering the 19 southernmost counties in Florida. Itis a subtropical region that lies between the Caribbean and temperateNorth America. (See Figure 5) Environmental and economic impacts ofurbanization and agriculture, as well as other human activities, havealtered the critical natural balance between land and water, and theregion’s endemic flora and fauna. Today, the South Florida Ecosystemfaces substantial loss of habitat and fragmentation.The Departments of Interior, Commerce, Army, Justice and Agriculture,and the Environmental Protection Agency created the South FloridaEcosystem Restoration Task Force for the purpose of halting or reversingecological degradation. The task force has now expanded to include theState, Native American tribes, and the Governor’s Commission for aSustainable South Florida. The refuge plays an important role inintegrating the requirements of the Interagency Agreement on SouthFlorida Ecosystem Restoration and the mission of the National WildlifeRefuge System.The following priorities have been determined by the Service for theSouth Florida Ecosystem, which includes the refuge: Protect and manage units of the National Wildlife Refuge System andother national interest lands. Protect migratory birds and protect, restore, and manage their habitats. Protect, restore, and manage candidate, threatened, and endangeredspecies and their habitats. Protect, restore, and manage wetlands and other freshwater habitats. Protect, restore, and manage fish and other aquatic species and theirhabitats. Protect, restore, and enhance coastal and estuarine habitats. Protect, restore, and manage for biodiversity.Great egrets, Roseate spoonbills,and Glossy ibisPhoto by Don PfitzerDraft Comprehensive Conservation Plan9

Figure 5. South Florida Ecosystem Map10Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Legal Policy, Administrative Guidelines, and Other ConsiderationsAdministration of national wildlife refuges is governed by variousInternational treaties, federal laws, Presidential Executive Orders andregulations affecting land and water as well as the conservation andmanagement of fish and wildlife resources. Policies for managementoptions of the refuge are further refined by administrative guidelinesestablished by the Secretary of the Interior and policy guidelinesestablished by the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.Select legal summaries of treaties and laws relevant to administration ofthe National Wildlife Refuge System and management of the refuge areprovided in Appendix B.Refuge AgreementsThe refuge also operates under the following agreements with otherfederal, state, and local entities:Cooperative Agreement between the South Florida Water ManagementDistrict and Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, andGolden Florida Resort, Inc., a Florida Corporation, d/b/a Port of theIslands Resort and Marina (for operation of multi-agency visitor center);Cooperative Agreement betweenthe South Florida WaterManagement District andDepartment of the Interior, Fishand Wildlife Service for theconstruction of a water controlstructure on Merritt Canal. Projectdesigned to restore hydrology toLucky Lake and Stumpy strands.Interagency Agreement betweenthe Department of the Interior, BigCypress National Preserve andFlorida Panther National WildlifeRefuge (for law enforcement);WoodstorksUSFWS photo by Larry W. RichardsonLocal Operational Agreementbetween the Big Cypress NationalPreserve and Florida PantherNational Wildlife Refuge and TenThousand Islands National WildlifeRefuge (for wildfire suppression andprescribed burning);Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of the Interiorand the State of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection (forwildfire suppression and prescribed burning);Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of the Interiorand the State of Florida, Department of Agricultural and ConsumerServices, Florida Division of Forestry (for wildfire suppression andprescribed burning).Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan11

Planning Issues AndOpportunitiesOverview of the Public Involvement ProcessIssue identification provides a sound basis for initiating the development ofmanagement objectives and strategies. To ensure that the futuremanagement of the refuge is reflective of the issues, concerns, andopportunities expressed by the public, a variety of scoping mechanismswas used.A survey was used to gather general information on current andpotential refuge operations. Personal interviews were conducted during public scoping meetings. Letters were mailed to affected and interested publics to inform them ofthe planning process and invite their participation. A series of stakeholder meetings and community forums were held todevelop components of the draft plan. The meetings and forums alsoallowed for consensus testing on the components of the plan developedby the stakeholder group and Service team. All stakeholder meetingsand community forums were advertised and opened to the public. A summary of the scoping and public involvement process is provided inAppendix C.Scope of Issues, Concerns, and OpportunitiesThe following key issues, concerns, and opportunities were identifiedduring the scoping process: Public Access - A major issue voiced by the public regarding access tothe refuge. Traditionally, the refuge has been closed to public accesswith the exception of limited, small group tours. The public would like tohave access to the refuge. Cooperative Land Management and Partnerships - The refuge is one ofmany public land management areas that along with private landinterests make up the Big Cypress Watershed. Management actions inone part of the watershed may adversely impact other parts of thesystem. There was an overwhelming stakeholder desire to have thewatershed cooperatively managed. Public Awareness - Survey respondents indicated an interest in knowingmore about the panther and refuge programs. Panther Habitat Protection on Private Lands - A sizeable portion ofimportant habitat used by the panther exists on private lands. Althoughland owners are not interested in selling their land, they are interestedin maintaining natural areas. Refuge Research and Management - Research and habitat managementare considered important tools to successfully manage the refuge. Lack of Adequate Staffing - There are not enough staff members toundertake initiatives needed to address Service responsibilities for therefuge and/or the South Florida Ecosystem. Oil and Gas Exploration - Oil and gas exploration exists on the refugeand produces an adverse affect on the resources.All public issues, concerns, and opportunities for refuge management havebeen addressed in Appendix C, and in the development of comprehensivegoals, objectives, and strategies. For the purposes of the draftmanagement plan, special emphasis is placed on refuge access.12Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Proposed ManagementDirectionRefuge MissionThe mission of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is to conserveand manage lands and waters in concert with other agency land effortswithin the Big Cypress Watershed, primarily for the Florida panther,other endangered and threatened species, natural diversity, and culturalresources for the benefit of the American people.Great egretsUSFWS Photo by B. GillRefuge Vision StatementThe Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, as a vital link in therecovery of the panther, will be managed for the conservation of thepanther, its habitat, other threatened and endangered species, naturaldiversity, and compatible uses. The refuge will be a model of effectivecollaboration in natural resource management and education amongdiverse public interests, public and private landowners on a voluntarybasis, and agencies.The Proposed Management ActionThe proposed management action for the refuge is discussed in thefollowing pages. The alternatives considered and their impacts, along withthe impacts of the proposed action, are described in Appendix A.Utilizing an Ecosystem Approach to m

Second, the Service's 1995 "Florida Panther Recovery Plan," a document prepared by the interagency panther recovery team, states that the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is essential to the survival of the panther and that the refuge should enhance habitat conditions for the panther and the panther's prey species.

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