In February 2020, according to Interior Department emails obtained through open records requests, lawyers for the Collier companies and other ECPO landowners approached top Interior appointees, including then-FWS Director Aurelia Skipwith. The business representatives asked for a meeting to discuss a key obstacle facing their habitat conservation plan: the surge of new automobile traffic that will likely accompany new development within the plan area, which could devastate panthers. According to the email exchanges, ECPO and their lawyers encouraged FWS to take a very specific approach to its analysis of the conservation plan’s impact on panther roadkill.
A traffic sign in Fort Myers, Florida on May 27, 2019.
“The issue concerns whether future, offsite collisions between Florida panthers and vehicles operated by third parties on state, county and local roadways should be attributed to” the approval of the habitat conservation plan and associated permits, wrote an attorney with the lobbying firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, which represents the landowners, in an email to Skipwith and other appointees. “The answer, in our view, is no.” The next morning, the lawyer received a reply from Skipwith, who offered to “look into the matter.” Skipwith also put the lawyer in touch with her aide William Dove. “He will reach out so that we can reach a resolution,” Skipwith wrote the Hunton attorney. (A Collier Enterprises spokesperson said that ECPO representatives did not end up meeting with officials at the Department of the Interior headquarters, but that they did discuss the issue with the FWS regional office instead.)
A few months later, in July, the Interior Department chose to include the Collier habitat conservation plan in a list of projects that were to be fast-tracked with “expedited” environmental review in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as part of a federal effort to spur economic development.
According to campaign finance records, the Collier family itself has engaged in major political giving in recent years. In February 2020 alone, two members of the family, whose donation records identify them as owners of Collier Enterprises, gave more than $1.4 million combined to the Republican National Committee, Trump’s campaign coffers, and a Trump-aligned PAC. (In response to emailed questions, an ECPO spokesperson wrote that “there is no connection whatsoever between personal contributions made by members of the Collier Family during an election year and events associated with ECPO’s decade-long pursuit of the HCP permits.”)
Winter 2020 was not the first time ECPO representatives had the ear of top federal officials, according records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Earlier in the Trump administration, ECPO’s lawyers circulated a legal memo to key FWS officials, arguing that the agency, in conducting its Section 7 review, should not treat “vehicle strikes of panthers” as “‘direct’ or ‘indirect’ effects” of its decision to permit their plan. There is “general sentiment that the decision how to address vehicle strikes could have national implications,” wrote a Hunton attorney in an April 2017 email to FWS’s Assistant Director for Endangered Species Gary Frazer.
The roadkill issue is key because, in the past, FWS officials in Florida have considered roadway collisions with panthers an indirect effect of development, as they did in 2018 when they published a Section 7 review of a proposed 625-unit residential development in Lee County. Should FWS find that the ECPO plan and the development it enables are associated with too much panther roadkill, it could trigger a jeopardy determination. ECPO lawyers appear to want the agency to abandon the view that roadkill impacts will be a direct or even an indirect effect of their plan in the hopes that such a change will make approval more likely.
In January 2018, meanwhile, Spilker, two Hunton lawyers, and a Barron Collier Companies executive met with then-Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt and top aides, according to agency records. (An ECPO spokesperson said that the meeting “was not related to the HCP nor was the HCP discussed.”)
ECPO’s contacts with FWS have not been limited to Washington. For years, their representatives have had regular meetings and calls with officials in FWS’s South Florida field office as well as its regional office in Atlanta. Hundreds of pages of emails, memos, and meeting agendas indicate a close relationship between the parties. For example, in a draft memo to FWS headquarters dated June 2020, Leo Miranda, the director of the agency’s southeastern region, described the close working relationship with ECPO, writing that since April 2018, FWS officials have “met continuously with ECPO every other week to review progress, settle issues, and exchange information to advance our review.”
In a 2019 memo, meanwhile, FWS officials in Atlanta hinted at forthcoming approval of the habitat conservation plan. “We anticipate litigation to follow the final decision,” the officials wrote. “We need to make sure all documents and the administrative record are as defensible as possible to minimize risk to the applicant (most importantly) and the Service.” While contact between an applicant and FWS during the development of a habitat conservation plan is not necessarily unusual, these and other communications from public records requests show, at times, notable deference on the part of the agency.
In response to emailed questions about these communications, FWS said that during the conservation plan application process, “we work with the applicant one on one. This is true for all applicants whether they be individuals, corporations or private landowners.”
A Florida panther being released to the wild in Big Cypress National Preserve by members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the National Park Service on May 25, 2016.
ECPO’s Interactions with the FWS have also included large direct payments. The arrangement amounts to a situation where the landowners paid for staff positions at the agency that will decide the fate of their plan for eastern Collier County — an arrangement that reflects, among other things, FWS’s perennial lack of funding, according to experts.
A memorandum of agreement signed by the agency and ECPO in June 2016 stipulates that the landowners would pay FWS more than $200,000 to fund the agency’s normal operations while it dedicated “staff away from those duties to facilitate the development and review” of the conservation plan and associated permits. FWS ultimately invoiced Collier Enterprises for at least $292,000 for that purpose, according to documents obtained through FOIA requests. Two FWS staff members assigned to work with ECPO to craft their habitat conservation plan would later go on to help lead the Section 7 evaluation of the plan’s impact on panthers.
In late September 2018, FWS sent Spilker two invoices for staffing that totaled more than $115,000, according to billing records. A month later, an FWS official wrote an email to Spilker and a Barron Collier Companies executive with the subject line “Got $,” according to the public records. The official wrote: “Gents, THANKS for your help getting the checks to the RO” — the regional office. In response, the Barron Collier Companies executive wrote back, “Keep Chuck going…” — an apparent reference to one of the FWS staffers who was assigned to help the companies with their conservation plan and later ended up working on the Section 7 evaluation. (In the public records obtained by Type Investigations and The Intercept, the 2018 invoices and email were the latest documents referencing the financial relationship between the developers and FWS.)
FWS declined to comment on the arrangement. An ECPO spokesperson wrote that its “financial assistance … is helping to offset the government’s staffing costs for the required processes, reviews, and reports — period. Any intimation to the contrary is baseless and explicitly incorrect.”
Kevin Bell, staff counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, called the arrangement “corrosive” to public service. “It is pretty rare to see a property developer cheer on regulatory staff by name, but then it’s also pretty rare that the federal government puts employees performing environmental reviews up for auction,” Bell said. “It isn’t hard to guess how that review will come out when the McMansion lobby is literally paying their salary.”
“It stinks,” said Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School. “The last thing in the world the agency should be doing is giving the public the perception that it has been bought.” He said the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General should investigate the matter.
Spilker readily admits that the landowner coalition has advocated for itself in Washington. “It is part of the process,” he said. For all of ECPO’s de facto lobbying, however, he believes the landowners’ conservation and development plan deserves approval on its merits alone.
“If you think that things aren’t going to move in the direction of development in Florida, you are fooling yourself,” he told me as he drove past sprawling Collier County ranchlands. “And if you can help guide and direct the development into appropriate locations and have big public benefits as offsets, that is a much better way to do it than the piecemeal approach.” Spilker hopes FWS takes this approach in its evaluation, he said after taking me past a hidden panther den. “We will see what they decide.”
Paula Halupa, who worked as a biologist at the South Florida FWS office for nearly 20 years until her recent retirement, believes the agency should call jeopardy.
It is not a habitat conservation plan, she said in an interview. It is “a habitat loss plan.”
Her husband, Bob Frakes, the former FWS scientist who conducted key research on the panther in 2015, is also against the habitat conservation plan. They say they both oppose the ECPO plan because they believe the best available science — that panthers can’t afford any more core habitat loss. They are also worried about all those new automobiles on South Florida roads.
“It is like the worst possible place you could put a project like that,” Halupa said. “It is in the primary zone of the panther, and it is all these people, all these cars, everything.”
Some conservationists have different views of the habitat conservation plan, among them Defenders of Wildlife, which supports the process. According to Elizabeth Fleming, the group’s Florida representative, “There are parts of the HCP that we would like to see improved, but there is a lot of good to it also.” She cited especially the 107,000 acres that would be preserved. Two local Audubon Society chapters, which cumulatively received $45,000 from a Collier family foundation in 2017 and 2018, also support the plan. (Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell said that the Collier foundation is one of the group’s many donors and its donations did not affect Audubon’s decision to back the ECPO project.)
Other conservation organizations, meanwhile, are desperate to stop the ECPO habitat conservation plan, chief among them the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, based in Naples. It has campaigned to block the plan, pressing FWS to call jeopardy. The Conservancy hired scientists, including Frakes and Noss, the editor and expert on habitat conservation plans, to put together reports analyzing what they say are flaws in the landowners’ plan. The group is concerned that the 107,000 acres the plan sets aside for preservation will actually be left open to oil and gas drilling, as well as other commercial activities, which the conservation plan indicates is a possibility.
There is also some tribal opposition to the plan: Public records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show that the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida submitted a letter to FWS in 2019 urging the agency to deny ECPO’s plan. According to the agency’s summary of the letter, the Miccosukee said that the plan, among other concerns, “violates tribal rights under federal law” and “the panther and other wildlife would lose habitat, connections to other wildlife populations, and become subject to greater human conflict.”
Few observers think the agency will ultimately call jeopardy. “They could announce that they are going to build a nuclear weapons test site in the middle of panther habitat, and the Fish and Wildlife Service would find some way to approve it,” said Frakes.
Numerous FWS retirees and outside observers interviewed for this story believe political interests influence the agency’s scientific decisions. And FWS has been underfunded for decades, according to experts.
“It is a very demoralized agency,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, whose late husband John was an author of the Endangered Species Act. “Professionals [work for FWS] because they love the outdoors, and they want to protect our natural resources,” she observed. “Not only are they not appreciated, their budgets are being cut, they are being undermined when they make recommendations based on science.”
The last four years were particularly hard on the agency. The Trump administration weakened the Endangered Species Act with regulatory rollbacks. It removed protections from imperiled wildlife. As for Section 7, the administration sought to stymie proposed jeopardy decisions that stand in the way of big commercial interests, as it did in California in 2019.
All this adds up to a sorry situation, according to Don Barry, a former Interior Department official who helped shape its endangered species program while serving in four different administrations in the late 20th century. The enforcement “teeth” of the Endangered Species Act, he said, have been ground down to “just a bunch of nubs.” (FWS did not respond to requests for comment on critics’ claims that the agency has weakened its overall enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.)
The Florida panther is a lens on these trends. Flattened by motorists, beset by genetic problems, threatened by a disturbing new neurological affliction, and hemmed in by development, the panthers need a strong FWS and a strong Endangered Species Act. But that’s not the reality right now.
Halupa, the former FWS official in Florida, gets emotional recounting the many times she saw front-line FWS biologists try to call jeopardy on harmful projects in panther habitat, only to be overruled by supervisors. She described an agency culture that puts political considerations over conservation imperatives — and silences dissenters.
“The ESA is such a powerful act,” she said, between tears. “But the Fish and Wildlife Service makes it weak, purposefully makes it weak.”
Jansen and I drove for hours around the Big Cypress backcountry, our eyes peeled for predators. We passed through a landscape of slash pine and cypress; we saw palmetto, dark marshes and dry uplands, wading ibis and lounging alligators, but no luck. The Florida panther is endangered, after all — a vanishing subspecies. We did discover plenty of panther tracks, however, and Jansen decided to make me a memento.
She pulled a bag of plaster and a jug of water out of the swamp buggy, mixed the ingredients in a bowl, and poured its contents into a depression in the dirt. She wanted to send me home with a plaster cast of a panther print.
Jansen’s favorite memories from her lifetime among panthers, she said, involve watching newborn kittens grown into mature adults, then die natural deaths — all without ever leaving Big Cypress.
“I am glad I’ve lived when I’ve lived,” she told me, “because I think we are in for some rough times.”
Between habitat loss, traffic mortality, declining deer herds, and other maladies, Jansen says she is “extremely concerned that we are going to have a really hard time keeping [the panther] as part of the ecosystem in Florida.”
The plaster dried quickly. Jansen pulled it from the ground and handed it over — a white slab etched with a panther print and dirt stuck between the toes. Someday down the road, that plaster print could be the sad relic of another wild animal future generations won’t get to see.
Editors: Maha Ahmed for Type Investigations; Ali Gharib for The Intercept
Fact-checker: Nina Zweig
Graphic: Soohee Cho
Art direction: Philipp Hubert
Web production: Soohee Cho, Elise Swain, Richard Salame