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Florida panther, key deer could be delisted under proposed new rules

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking another look at endangered species protections for two animals native to the Sunshine State.

(CN) — Two of Florida’s most iconic mammals may lose protections in the coming year, environmental groups fear, following proposed federal rule changes released this week.

As part of President Joe Biden’s unified regulatory agenda, a compilation of regulations being considered by the administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reassessing the endangered species status of the Florida panther and the key deer, the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer.

According to an FWS proposal released Dec. 10, the agency "may propose to downlist or delist the [key deer], unless FWS determines no change in its status is warranted.”

The key deer only live on a couple islands in the Florida Keys, a small archipelago that lies just 5 feet above sea level.

The Florida panther, another endangered species, is largely centered in the swamps and scrub forest west of the Everglades National Park. Another FWS proposal seeks to reassess the listing status of the species and could revise its taxonomy. One of the last big cats in the United States, the Florida panther was listed as an endangered species in 1967.

Despite 27 deaths of panthers this year, out of a population of approximately 200, the federal wildlife agency has recommended “delisting the panther when three populations of at least 240 individuals each (excluding dependent-aged kittens) have been established, and sufficient habitat to support these populations is secured in the long-term.”

Suggestions have included moving the animals to Alabama or Georgia to reach the government’s goals.

“It’s appalling that the Fish and Wildlife Service is even considering moving forward with a Trump-era plan to reduce protections for the Florida panther just to enrich special interest real-estate developers,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Hartl said the organization is waiting to see what the agency decides to do before filing a lawsuit to block any potential changes.

Brian Hires, a spokesman for the FWS, said there is “not a proposed action at this time … this is something that may or may not happen, depending on reviews that will follow.”

As part of efforts to save the Florida panther, the state bred the animals with other big cats from other states. As such, the federal agency may consider the big cat as a subspecies and not viable as its own panther worthy of endangered species status.

The agency is also looking into reclassifying the whooping crane, only found in Texas, and the Canada lynx.

“Some of these were in the last unified agenda, and I kind of wrote them off …they were just holdovers from the Trump era,” Hartl said in an interview. “Now it’s December, all the politicos are in place. It’s sort of incredulous because you're picking species that are super highly imperiled and harmed by climate change.”

“Now it seems we’ve reached a point, one year into the Biden administration, that they have not peeled off this Trump-era initiative,” he added. “Now it seems they are following down a path to achieve a goal that’s already been decided.”

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