A federal district court decision reinstated protection for wetlands and the habitat of critically endangered Florida panthers by blocking 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 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, one of the groups that sued the National Park Service over a 2007 expansion of park areas open to off-road vehicles.
“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 Humane Society of the United States. “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 Park Service 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 off-road vehicle 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 off-road vechicle 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 such vehicle use in the preserve.
“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.”