TERRAIN, TAXES, AND LAND TRUSTS: SAVING THE FLORIDA PANTHER THROUGH THE USE OF CONSERVATION EASEMENTS



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The Florida panther (puma concolor coryi), the official state animal of Florida, is the last remaining subspecies of “Puma” (also known as mountain lion or cougar) still surviving in the eastern United States. Extensive hunting devastated the population, and the Florida panther was one of the first species added to the U.S. endangered species list in 1973. By 1995, Florida panther populations dropped to less than 20 to 30 individuals in the wild and the Florida panther’s current status remains listed as endangered.

Historically, panthers were found throughout the southeastern U.S., including Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and parts of South Carolina. Although it is estimated that more than 200 panthers roam freely throughout Florida today, they are presently restricted to less than 5% of their historical range in a single breeding population in southern Florida.[5] Habitat loss and habitat fragmentation continue to threaten the panther’s existence. The survival and recovery of the Florida panther are dependent upon maintaining, restoring, and expanding the panther population and its habitat in Florida and beyond.

Panthers are a wide-roaming species that require large, contiguous areas of suitable habitat to meet their social and reproductive needs. For panther population growth, they will need much more protected habitat than they currently use. The existing amount of habitat available to them on public lands is being encroached upon daily with development and is inadequate for the species to recover and be removed from the federal list of endangered or threatened species. The Florida panther currently roams on state and federal lands in South Florida, including the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, the Big Cypress National Preserve, and the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. But panther recovery goals cannot be met without establishing additional populations outside of these limited areas of southern Florida and this requires support from private landowners. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specifically recognizes that public support and developing incentives for private landowners to retain and manage panther habitat are equally critical components to achieving panther recovery.

In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established a Panther Recovery Plan, which aims for habitat for the panther to be conserved on both public and private lands throughout Florida. The plan identifies private rangelands in southwest and southcentral Florida that can provide vital habitat and prey for the Florida panther and can have a key role in conserving other native Florida species. Preservation of this land will allow panthers to safely migrate to the historic northern habitat they once roamed.

One of the most important and practical approaches to conserving panther habitat on private lands is the utilization of conservation easements. Florida’s private landowners can donate the developmental rights to a qualified conservation organization under a conservation easement — a voluntary, legal agreement between a private landowner and a governmental or nongovernment organization that then permanently restricts the development or use of land such as parks, wetlands, farmland, forest land, or historic structures to achieve certain conservation purposes in perpetuity. By placing the easement, some quality of the property is protected such as wildlife, habitat, open space, or forest management. Conservation easements have been an accepted and popular conservationist’s tool for decades, largely because of the substantial tax and economic benefits for easement donors. Since their launch more than 40 years ago, the use of conservation easements has become a critical component in protecting ecologically important lands and they can continue to be used as an important tool to save the Florida panther. By donating conservation easements on private land in Florida, landowners can continue to enjoy the land and save the Florida panther by providing necessary habitat for their expansion while receiving significant state and federal tax benefits.

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