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Feds quietly announce plans to change protections for Florida panther and Key deer

Close up photo of a Key deer
Emily Michot
Miami Herald
In a notice published Friday in the Federal Register, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it was considering weakening protections for the Key deer.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it was considering stripping protections from two of Florida’s most iconic endangered species: the Florida panther and Key deer.

The news surprised conservationists, who expected the Biden White House to undo Trump administration cuts to environmental protections that included shrinking the endangered species list.

“Is this a holdover from the Trump administration plan? Perhaps. But the Biden administration has been in place for a year,” said Brett Hartl, an attorney and government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It's hard to imagine a scenario where the agency is not letting people know that this is a mistake.”

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The notices were included in the administration’s unified agenda, a plan updated every six months and provided to the White House from various agencies.

The Department of Interior included the two proposed rule changes for the listing status for the Key deer and panther. The panther notice said the Service was considering changing the taxonomy of the panther, referring to a long simmering debate over whether the Florida panther represents a truly a distinct subspecies from other panthers in the U.S.

The Service said it was proposing downlisting or delisting the deer.

In a letter to the Interior Department, Hartl warned that the Service was moving forward on a Trump plan that favored developers and ignored the threats from climate change.

Both species were targeted under the former administration for a status change despite worsening threats. Sprawling neighborhoods, highways and plans for expanded drilling in the Big Cypress National Preserve continue to squeeze panther habitat. In the Lower Keys, the deer face rising seas that could flood the pinelands where they graze and turn freshwater watering holes salty.

In its latest assessment of the deer, the Service concluded that as sea rise shrinks the islands, the planet’s only herd of dog-sized deer will be less likely to survive disease and hurricanes that they have so far survived for centuries.

The nearly 100-page report concludes by saying how the deer will endure sea rise needs further discussion.

Friday’s listing also included a proposed rule change to whooping cranes, North America’s tallest bird. Its population had shrunk to about 20 before it was protected. While numbers have risen to about 600, the only self-sustaining flock can be found migrating between Canada and the Texas coast.

The Service told WLRN it was unable to answer questions Tuesday evening.

Hartl worries that the Service is moving forward without relying on the latest information on species and may dismiss the latest move as a routine review.

“But they don't put out an agenda item for all 1,700 endangered species every six months, saying, Well, we're considering our options, maybe we'll do nothing,” he said. “Under the Endangered Species Act, there's only three choices: no protection, threatened status or endangered status. And if you're endangered at the highest level of protection, there's only one direction you can go, which is down.”

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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