Wildlife protection groups applaud a federal district court decision that reinstates protection for wetlands and the habitat of critically endangered Florida panthers. The decision overturns a 2007 move by the National Park Service to permit off-road vehicles on more than 20 miles of additional trails in the Bear Island Unit of south Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve.
The lawsuit was brought by Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, The Humane Society of the United States, National Parks Conservation Association, The Florida Biodiversity Project, The Wilderness Society, and Wildlands CPR.
“The court’s decision sends the strongest message possible to the Park Service that it failed to adequately protect the Big Cypress National Preserve and its irreplaceable natural resources,” said Laurie Macdonald, Florida director of Defenders of Wildlife. “Sound natural resource conservation in the Big Cypress National Preserve is essential to protecting this incredibly diverse ecosystem, a unique part of America’s natural heritage. The court’s ruling makes clear that now is the time for all of us to work together to ensure that any activities in the preserve, including off-road vehicle use, protects the wildlife, waters and wildlands of this special place.”
For years, NPS has documented the negative impacts of ORV use in Big Cypress. ORV use in the preserve is referred to as a “high impact recreational activity” – responsible for rutting, compaction and oxidation of soils, destruction of plants and roots, alteration of wetland hydrology, facilitating the spread of invasive plant species throughout the preserve, and causing behavioral disturbances to endangered animal species.
Once ranging across the entire southeastern United States, the only known breeding population of Florida panthers exists in southern Florida, occupying five percent of its historic range. Today the Florida panther is estimated to number 100 to 160 adult animals. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are identified as the greatest threats to panther survival.
“Off-road vehicle use has had well-documented and significant adverse impacts on wildlife populations and their habitats,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for The HSUS. “The court’s decision will help protect Florida panthers and other vulnerable species from ill-considered decisions that favor recreational activities over resource protection.”
In reaching its decision, the court determined that NPS violated federal law by failing to conduct a new assessment of environmental impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act, and failing to explain how increasing ORV use would be consistent with policies that require the agency to minimize damage to natural resources and disruption of wildlife habitats.
The ruling also addressed the actions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which concurred in the decision to reopen ORV trails in Bear Island. The court held that the USFWS violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to exercise “reasoned scientific judgment,” and failing to consider the current status of the Florida panther and the species’ vulnerability to the damage caused by ORV use in the preserve.
The decision to re-open ORV trails in Bear Island in 2007 flew in the face of the agency’s own 17-year effort to curb damage caused by ORV use in Big Cypress. “While off-road vehicles are allowed in some parts of the Preserve, this judicial decision recognizes that there are some places where off-road vehicle recreation is too damaging and just doesn’t belong.” stated Bethanie Walder, with Wildlands CPR.
In addition to violations of federal law, the court determined that the Park Service’s 2007 decision, which the agency made under pressure from hunters and other recreational users of the preserve, violates the terms of an ORV management plan that previously closed trails in 2000.
“The judge agreed that these unique prairies and wetlands deserve protection from the impacts of ORVs,” said John Adornato, Sun Coast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. “The original plan intended to significantly reduce the area of the preserve impacted by ORVs and eliminate use entirely from the preserve’s most sensitive habitats such as prairies and marshes. The re-opening of these particular trails in Bear Island in 2007 was contrary to this preservation goal.”
“Preserve managers are well aware that nearly one million people visit the preserve annually and the vast majority do not utilize ORVs. This decision will allow undisturbed access on foot to one of the most beautiful and biodiverse wetlands in North America,” said Matthew Schwartz of the Sierra Club, who regularly leads hikes in the preserve. “ORV use will continue to be allowed in sections of Bear Island where the use is sustainable, but now the proper balance between motorized and non-motorized use of Bear Island has been restored.”
The plaintiffs were represented in the lawsuit by the public interest firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal based in Washington, D.C. Any legal inquiries about the ruling can be directed to the firm at (202) 588-5206.