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An Ecological Tadeoff? Utility-scale Solar Energy Impedes Endangered Florida Panthers

An Ecological Tadeoff? Utility-scale Solar Energy Impedes Endangered Florida Panthers

Florida, the "Sunshine State," is rapidly increasing installation of utility-scale solar energy (USSE) facilities to combat carbon emissions and climate change. However, the expansion of renewable energy may come with environmental tradeoffs. Reducing the energy industry's carbon footprint is impeding a large carnivore's paw-print.

Once ranging throughout the southeastern United States, the only breeding population of the endangered Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) is restricted to a little more than 5 percent of its historic range in South Florida. Florida panthers need corridors for dispersal, which most commonly occurs when they leave their maternal range to head out on their own. Moreover, they have very large home ranges—males need about 200 square miles, and their survival relies on their ability to move from protected area to protected area through wildlife corridors.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University conducted the first study documenting the effect of USSE facilities on both  and broad-scale connectivity of suitable habitat for any large carnivore. The study encompassed Peninsular Florida, excluding the Panhandle region, and focused on 45 installed or planned USSE facilities equaling about 27,688 acres—the average area of a USSE plant was about 615 acres.

Researchers compared Florida panther habitat suitability and connectivity pre- and post-installation of USSE facilities within Peninsular Florida using random forest to predict probability of presence in 1 square kilometer cells and circuit theory to predict movement probability between the areas of suitable habitat. They also utilized panther radio-telemetry data collected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) from February 1981 to June 2020 to validate the predicted corridors.  

Results of the study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, showed that most often, solar facilities were installed on grasslands and pastures (45.7 percent of total area replaced by solar facilities), and agricultural lands (34.9 percent). Forest was the third most impacted land cover category (13.2 percent). The findings suggest a substantial bias in locating USSE facilities within rural and undeveloped lands, which may provide connectivity that is sufficient for Florida panthers to roam, live and breed.

The greatest impacts occurred where facilities were located within a predicted major corridor, where current density was substantially greater than its surroundings, and where no alternative major corridors exist. Researchers found nine facilities located within major corridors connecting the current breeding habitat and other core areas with the potential to support populations of Florida panther. They found an additional 26 facilities located in rural areas between core areas with relatively weaker current densities compared to the major corridors, but that could potentially support dispersal. Of the remaining facilities in this study, four were within or directly adjacent to core areas, and only six facilities had no to very minimal potential expected impact on core areas or connectivity.

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