Federal lawsuit filed over panther habitat

FORT MYERS — Five conservation groups are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the federal agency isn’t protecting Florida panther habitat.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court, asks a judge to force the agency to designate “critical habitat” for the panther.

Earlier this month, federal officials rejected a request to designate thousands of square miles of South Florida as habitat for the Florida panther. It was the second time the agency has rejected such a request.

The big cat is Florida’s state animal.

“Critical habitat is key to the survival of the Florida panther,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “The Obama administration’s decision not to designate critical habitat would be a nail in the coffin for these great cats if allowed to stand.”

The Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Council for Civic Associations are also plaintiffs in the case.

Ken Warren, a spokesman for the South Florida office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Although the panther has been on the endangered species list for 40 years, the government has never officially designated its critical habitat.

The agency hasn’t objected to any development affecting panthers since 1993.

Panthers prowl the forests and swamps in an area that begins at southern Florida’s Caloosahatchee River and stretches down through Everglades National Park.

Experts say less than 100 of the big cats remain.