Impacting habitat connectivity of the endangered Florida panther for the transition to utility-scale solar energy.
The only breeding population of the endangered Florida panther Puma concolor coryi is restricted to <5% of its historic range in South Florida, but this area may be at carrying capacity and three viable populations within the historic range are needed for species recovery. The number of utility-scale solar energy (USSE) facility installations is increasing rapidly throughout Florida, and while important in combatting carbon emissions and climate change, they pose additional threats to Florida panther habitat and dispersal corridors. We compared Florida panther habitat suitability and connectivity pre- and post-installation of 45 USSE facilities within Peninsular Florida using random forest to predict probability of presence in 1 km2 cells and circuit theory (Circuitscape 4.0) to predict movement probability between the areas of suitable habitat. We found that most often solar facilities were installed on grasslands and pastures (45.7% of total area replaced by solar facilities) and agricultural lands (34.9%). Forest was the third most impacted land cover category (13.2%). Probability of presence in the 351 impacted cells decreased by 0.03. The major changes in current density occurred within the cells overlapped by the facilities and within their vicinity. Post-installation effective resistance between core areas increased by 0.07%. Nine facilities were located within major corridors connecting the only breeding population with other areas with the potential to support populations of Florida panther, 26 facilities were located within lesser current density areas that maintain some dispersal capacity and six facilities had no, or very minimal, potential expected impact on connectivity (four were excluded from the analysis). Our findings suggest a substantial bias in the locating of USSE facilities within rural and undeveloped lands that may provide connectivity sufficient for Florida panther dispersal to habitat suitable for population establishment. Our research is the first study documenting the effect of USSE facilities on both habitat suitability and regional-scale connectivity of suitable habitat for any large carnivore. Synthesis and applications. Current permitting review methodologies resulting in USSE (utility-scale solar energy) facilities installation approval may be inadequate, and facility siting should consider landscape-level connectivity in addition to environmental impacts within facility boundaries.