Florida Panther Protection Program
Florida Panther Protection
Florida Panther Protection Program

Mission and Overview

The Florida Panther Protection Program (FPPP) was established in 2008 by a broad coalition of leading conservation organizations and a group of small and large landowners in eastern Collier County who were committed to the recovery of the endangered Florida panther. Their collaborative efforts under the FPPP are focused on the protection of a significant, contiguous range of panther habitat through landscape-level planning. Specifically, the FPPP is designed to preserve and enhance over 100,000 acres of panther habitat on privately owned land in order to establish and maintain ecologically valuable connections between public conservation lands in the region, and thereby allow movement and dispersal of panthers, their prey base and other wildlife. In addition, the FPPP calls for the establishment of the Paul J. Marinelli Panther Protection Fund, a multi-million dollar fund that will be used to initiate and support conservation activities that will benefit the panther and other wildlife for decades to come.

The blueprint for the 100,000+ acres of habitat preservation envisioned by the FPPP is reflected in the tenets of the Eastern Collier Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (ECMSHCP). The ECMSHCP was developed and designed to benefit the Florida panther and eighteen other protected species in Southwest Florida. The ECMSHCP, which was designed by the landowners in coordination with their conservation partners, covers approximately 151,000 acres of private land collectively owned by the 12 landowners, who together are known as the Eastern Collier Property Owners (ECPO).

The ECMSHCP identifies over 100,000 acres of privately owned land for preservation, which are worth an estimated $1.4 billion and are otherwise subject to development. These preserved lands will provide valuable habitat for the Florida panther and eighteen other protected species, permanently preserving wildlife dispersal corridors that provide crucial linkages between existing public conservation lands while leaving a portion of the remaining lands (primarily extensive row crop fields and citrus groves) available for future development. The resulting conservation benefit will be substantial and will come at no direct cost to taxpayers.

To read more about the FPPP, please click Here »

Implementation of ECMSHCP Tenets

The ECPO members have voluntarily committed to implement the tenets of the ECMSHCP as they proceed with their projects within the ECMSHCP area on a project-by-project basis:

  • permanently preserve over 100,000 acres of lands identified and mapped for preservation in the ECMSHCP

  • third-party enforcement of preservation ensured through dedicated conservation easements

  • limit future commercial and concentrated residential development in the ECMSHCP area to a total of less than 40,000 acres, all in areas outside those identified for preservation and within areas mapped for development in the 150,000 acres in the ECMSHCP area are open to development under county zoning, and of these lands, 71,000± acres are open to concentrated (RLSP), but implementation of the ECMSHCP tenets would limit new concentrated development to under 40,000 acres within the ECMSHCP area.

  • The areas identified for preservation by the ECMSHCP include areas not necessarily preserved by the RLSP that would buffer the Okaloacoochee Slough system, thereby limiting development primarily to western portions of the ECMSHCP area with the least valuable habitat areas (e.g., active farm fields) and closest to existing development and infrastructure.

  • contribute funds to the Marinelli Fund, which is expected to accrue over $100 million over the next 50 years to be used for conservation activities
  • contributions include $350 per acre of development and $200 per residential unit sale and resale.

Value of Preservation

The preservation of habitat that will result from implementation of the ECMSHCP tenets will provide a contiguous, interconnected land cover matrix that allows for wildlife movement and gene flow throughout the area. These vast preserved private lands are connected to conservation lands outside the ECMSHCP area, allowing regional movement of the Florida panther and other protected species. This preservation area significantly buffers the Okaloacoochee Slough system, which is an important regional movement corridor for Florida panthers dispersing northward from federal and state conservation lands to the south, such as the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and Picayune Strand State Forest. The preservation areas protect corridors where local panther dispersal movements have been documented. The panther dispersal corridors protected through implementation of the ECMSHCP tenets were identified in coordination with ECPO, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS or Service), and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to provide safe movement of panthers across major roadways where panther-vehicle collisions have been documented (so-called “hotspots”). Through implementation of the ECMSHCP tenets, existing and restored panther habitat on both sides of these roadways is preserved, including in areas where future wildlife crossings with fencing are planned or expected by FDOT and/or Collier County. The north corridor connects the north end of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW) across State Route 82 and into Hendry County. The south corridor connects private property south and north of Oil Well Road to panther habitat east of State Route 29.

The ECPO members have committed to implement the tenets of the ECMSHCP as they proceed with future projects in the area, including permanent protection of land identified in the ECMSHCP for preservation and contributions to the Marinelli Fund for each acre of development outside of those lands.

Through the FPPP, the ECPO members and their conservation partners also created the Marinelli Fund. The Marinelli Fund is expected to accrue over $100 million over the next 50 years, and to be used for conservation activities such as enhancement and management of the wildlife corridors within the preservation area; location and construction of panther and other wildlife fencing along and crossings under roadways; funding for land acquisition, enhancement, and/or management, to provide additional species habitat; and scientific research relevant to conservation of the species within the ECMSHCP area.

Questions and Answers:

Is the ECMSHCP Still Current?

The landowners have committed to implement the tenets of the ECMSHCP as part of their projects within the ECMSHCP area, including by following the geographic layout and design for landscape-level preservation of interconnected habitat, and through contributions to the Marinelli Fund.

Were the Incidental Take Applications Associated with the ECMSHCP Withdrawn?

The landowners originally submitted the ECMSHCP in support of combined applications for incidental take permits (ITPs) for activities spanning a 50-year planning period (ITP applications). After several years of review and discussion, the landowners decided to proceed with implementation of the tenets of the ECMSHCP on a project-by-project basis. With the support of their conservation organization partners, the landowners submitted applications for ITPs for activities to be undertaken within their own lands, and developed the ECMSHCP in connection with those applications. The ECMSHCP that was developed and submitted to the Service would preserve over 100,000 acres of high-value, interconnected habitats located within areas otherwise open to development in order to offset potential disturbance of listed species during construction and mining activities within a 45,000-acre area of low-habitat-value lands that are currently in large-scale agricultural use. As noted previously, the 100,000+ acres identified for preservation include valuable regional wildlife dispersal corridors that connect the vast public conservation lands in Southwest Florida, including the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, the Big Cypress National Preserve, Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, and the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, and can support expansion of the Florida panther’s range and population, as well as dispersal of other protected species. Implementation of the ECMSHCP would also generate tens of millions of dollars in contributions to the Paul J. Marinelli Fund to finance additional species protection measures.

After working with the Service on review of the ECMSHCP for more than a decade, the landowners concluded that several important steps remained to be completed before the Service would be prepared to issue ITPs that would be acceptable to the Service and the landowners, and some planned projects had reached a point at which the landowners needed to proceed with project-specific reviews and incidental take authorization rather than continuation of consultation on the ITP applications. In July 2022, the landowners withdrew their ITP applications. However, the landowners and their conservation partners continue to believe that the basic framework for the ECMSHCP, as reflected in its core tenets, offers significant conservation benefits beyond those typically achieved through individual project planning, and therefore have committed to continue following the tenets of the ECMSHCP. The ECMSHCP and the withdrawal letter are available through the link below.

Does Implementation of the Tenets of the ECMSHCP Require USFWS Approval?

The landowners are free to implement the tenets of the ECMSHCP voluntarily as they proceed with their projects, such as by following the ECMSHCP’s geographic layout and design for landscape-level preservation of habitat. The Service will, as part of its Endangered Species Act (ESA) review of a project, consider aspects of a project’s design and layout, including preservation of habitat (such as the habitat preservation provided for under the ECMSHCP). Such habitat preservation may become a required condition of a permit or review.

A habitat conservation plan (HCP) is only required when an application for an ITP is submitted. Even where an ITP application is submitted, the Service considers an ITP application “a voluntary action by an applicant” and recognizes that “an HCP is the applicant’s document.” See HCP Handbook at 2-7, 3-2. When the Service issues an ITP it authorizes incidental take, not the HCP itself. 16 U.S.C. §§ 1539(a)(1)(A) (ITP authorizes take incidental to an otherwise lawful activity), (a)(2) (applicant for ITP must submit an HCP that the Service finds meets certain requirements). The elements of an HCP may, however, become required terms in an ITP. 16 U.S.C. § 1539(a)(2) (ITP “shall contain such terms and conditions as the Secretary deems necessary or appropriate”). Similarly, a landowner’s commitment to implement the tenets of an HCP may become required conditions of a project permit or of an incidental take authorization under an incidental take statement. See, e.g., 16 U.S.C. § 1536(b)(4).

What Assurance is there that the Tenets of the ECMSHCP Will Be Implemented?

The landowners, their conservation partners, and other stakeholders all have strong interests in the successful, continued voluntary implementation of the tenets of the ECMSHCP in connection with future projects in the area. For the landowners, implementation of the ECMSHCP tenets is an important part of their project planning, including mitigation to offset project impacts. It also provides value to future residents and businesses in the area, who will benefit from and enjoy large expanses of nearby private lands placed under permanent preservation and who are likely to support the conservation value of these activities as well as some added costs resulting from preservation of this land and contributions to the Marinelli Fund. The landowners appreciate and value the support of their conservation partners and other stakeholders for implementation of the ECMSHCP tenets. Finally, a landowner’s commitment to implement the tenets of an ECMSHCP as part of a project may become binding conditions of a permit or incidental take authorization associated with that project. See, e.g., 16 U.S.C. § 1536(b)(4).