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Friday, June 21, 2024 | Back issues
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National Park Service accused of failing to protect endangered Florida wildlife

Environmentalists claim the agency paved the way for a Miami water park and retail development to be built on proposed critical habitat areas for several endangered species.

MIAMI (CN) — Conservation groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, accusing them of failing to protect several species of endangered animals and plants from the construction of a water park and retail development in South Florida.

Last year, the Park Service signed off on an agreement to end land-use restrictions on the site of the proposed project, allowing construction to proceed without first completing environmental analyses and taking conservation measures required under the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

The agreement removed the 67 acres of land “from all of the terms, conditions, covenants, and restrictions . . . including the requirement to maintain the [area] for public park or public recreational purposes," according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Miami federal court by the Center for Biological Diversity and three other environmental groups.

The complaint states that a consultation is required with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to "evaluate the effects of the action and cumulative effects on listed species and critical habitat” to determine whether their existence will be jeopardized by the construction.

Even if the FWS determines the project is not likely to do so, it must still provide a statement that "specifies the impact of the incidental take on the listed species" and outlines “reasonable and prudent measures” to minimize those impacts, the complaint states.

Miami Wilds plans to build a 27.5-acre water park, retail area, hotel and more than 40 acres of parking near Zoo Miami. The developer claims the project is "eco-sensitive" and is "outside of environmentally protected areas."

In June, Miami-Dade County approved a lease agreement for the site, which was contingent on the Park Service’s release of land-use restrictions.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Bat Conservation International, Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association and Tropical Audubon Society claim development threatens the endangered Florida bonneted bat, Miami tiger beetle and a pair of butterfly species, along with several endangered plants and the critically imperiled pine rocklands habitat of limestone outcrop formations.

"Pine rocklands are astoundingly unique and biodiverse ecosystems found only in south Florida and the Bahamas," the groups' lawsuit states. "Yet they have been reduced to only 3% of their historic range and continue to be critically endangered by urban and agricultural development, climate change, and sea level rise."

According to the complaint, the Richmond pine rocklands constitute the largest remaining fragment of rocklands in Miami outside of the Everglades, which are disappearing due to rising sea levels from climate change and urban developments that suppress the natural fires the land depends on to maintain its native biodiversity. The groups claim that the degradation of the area will evict the "dozens of rare and imperiled species" that live there, thus putting their "existence and recovery at grave risk."

Those species include the endemic Rim Rock crowned snake, two endangered butterfly species – the Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak and the Florida leafwing – and the iridescent Miami tiger beetle, a distinct beetle species with only two known limited populations left.

The proposed water park site overlaps with already designated and proposed critical habitat for these species and several rare and native plant species, including the Florida brickell-bush and Carter’s small-flowered flax, according to the lawsuit.

With its open, dark space and presence of insects, the area is also the "most important foraging and roosting habitat for the core population" of the federally protected Florida bonneted bat, which the environmentalists say would be harmed by the construction's introduction of artificial light. Endemic to Florida, these bats have been increasingly threatened over recent years from habitat loss, which the conservation groups have been fighting for years to protect in a series of lawsuits.

In November, the FWS included the area in its proposal for critical habitat designations for the species.

“The Florida bonneted bat is one of the rarest mammals on Earth,” said Mike Daulton, executive director at Bat Conservation International. “These kinds of incredibly rare species need the full protection offered by the Endangered Species Act. Greedy developers want to line their pockets while they drive these species to extinction. The Park Service shouldn’t be helping them.”

The Park Service and Miami Wilds did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

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Categories / Environment, Government

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