I heard the growl at the same time that my nose caught the musky scent. Frozen, staring out into the black night outside of the orange circle of campfire light my thoughts didn’t conclude that a Florida panther may be staring right back at me. They are so rare, so elusive, there couldn’t possibly be one prowling around my campsite in the middle of the Florida peninsula. Regardless, I was spooked and spent the rest of the night in the tent. Later research enlightened me to the incredible chance encounter it was and the danger I may have been in. The “pungent tomcat oder” and low growl were indeed likely to have been a Florida panther.

In an area just south of my campsite, a Texas oil company may soon make its presence known. Burnett Oil’s 30-ton trucks will drive off road, through the wetlands, install vibrating plates onto the ground, drop listing devices from helicopters to asses the presence of oil deposits. Big Cypress National Preserve is an area of Florida not usually featured in tourist guides. It is swampy, buggy, and provides a unique habitat for species like black bear, American alligator, endangered wading birds, and the Florida panther. 70,000 acres are slated for exploration and, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, will harm wildlife, vegetation, soil, and water sources.

Big Cypress National Preserve. Photos by Kristen Waddell

Though the preserve is home to federally protected species and one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, off-road vehicles, hunting, and some oil drilling are all currently allowed. The seismic testing to map areas of oil  and gas will invade an area of the preserve that has previously been left untouched. An environmental assessment completed by the National Park Service states that vegetation will grow back once the trucks are gone and there has been seismic testing before in the preserve and other National Park Service areas nationwide.

These excuses have not mollified environmental groups like National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), both of whom may sue to fight the proposed seismic testing and future drilling. Another environmental impact report will have to be conducted before drilling can occur. But Burnett Oil expects to find oil and gas and expects to drill.

The National Wildlife Federation estimates that there are less than 100 of Florida panthers left in the world. The big cats once roamed all over the Southeastern United States and are now relegated to small sections of wild Florida. Panthers and endangered species like them will never return to the habitat they once dominated, not while our modern society persists. But they survive still, in these small sanctuaries of wild. Don’t they deserve to keep what they have?

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