By Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - FL
Conservation groups filed a lawsuit yesterday against state and federal agencies over road-widening projects in the middle of Florida's critical panther habitats.
Widening projects along State Roads 29 and 82 in southwest Florida also include the first "continuous-flow intersection" in the state, designed to help traffic flow more smoothly while drivers are attempting left turns.
State Road 82 will go from two lanes to six, and Earthjustice Florida-based Staff Attorney Bonnie Malloy says that spells trouble for Florida's endangered panthers - when 85% of their deaths are on roadways.
"Obviously bigger, wider roads means further areas for the panther to cross, and more vehicles on the road for the panther to try to dodge," says Malloy. "So, there's different ways to take that into consideration and mitigate for those impacts, and the agencies are failing to do that."
On behalf of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, Earthjustice filed suit against the Florida Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Florida transportation officials have said the roads will pay big dividends to those who use them.
Among several claims, Malloy says the lawsuit points out the Florida Department of Transportation excluded its own findings - that the road widening is "likely to adversely affect" the Florida panther by destroying key habitat and increasing the potential for fatal motor vehicle collisions.
"Unfortunately with these projects, there seems to be a trend where they're doing inadequate level of review and just pushing these through," says Malloy. "Which is, of course, causing great alarm for us and the species and habitat that will impact."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion that the roadwork was unlikely to hurt the panther, but the lawsuit claims that conclusion is flawed.
On the federal endangered species list since 1967, there are now only 100 to 160 Florida panthers left in the wild, and Malloy says southwest Florida is their last remaining wild territory.
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