Floridians are ardent fans of endangered species and want to see them protected, even if it means fines for violators or restrictions on personal freedoms, a new University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences survey finds.
In conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, an online survey of 499 Floridians last month found that survey respondents ranked the importance of endangered species as 11th out of 15 public issues, well behind topics such as the economy, health care and food safety.
But they were solid in their support of legal protections for endangered species of all kinds, including fines, restrictions on residential and commercial development and buying habitat for endangered species to ensure their survival.
Florida is home to 47 endangered animal species, such as the Florida panther and the West Indian manatee, and another 44 plant species, including the Key tree-cactus and pondberry.
When it comes to actions and behaviors that could protect endangered species, the survey found Floridians are more inclined to take some steps than others, said Tracy Irani, director of the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education, or PIE Center, the research group that led the study.
"What we found, generally, is that people were most willing to avoid harmful activities such as avoiding buying invasive species or driving slower, than they were to do more active things, like supporting or belonging to an environmental group," she said.
For instance, 55 percent of survey respondents reported they were "very likely" to avoid harmful activities, such as not releasing pets into the wild or taking care to not degrade endangered species' habitat, while only 23 percent reported they would be similarly disposed to engage in environmental civic behavior, such as joining a conservation organization.
Other key findings from the survey of demographically representative Floridians:
- Sixty-six percent of respondents felt the Endangered Species Act should be strengthened.
- Seventy-eight percent agreed or strongly agreed that "the use and development of land should be restricted to protect endangered species."
- Respondents were more likely to consider plants, fish and mammals worthy of being conserved than microorganisms, invertebrates and reptiles.
- Roughly twice as many respondents agreed or strongly agreed that agricultural and industrial chemicals and pollution pose a threat to endangered species than did those who cited legal fishing or hunting.
- Florida residents considered themselves only slightly or fairly knowledgeable about issues affecting endangered species, but they're interested: 85 percent said they are likely or very likely to pay attention to news stories dealing with issues related to endangered species.
Jack Payne, UF's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said it's gratifying to see public support for the future welfare of the plants and animals in ecosystems.
And as the administrator who leads UF/IFAS, he said, there are many research and extension personnel dedicated to ensuring the preservation of biodiversity and that it's good to see strong public support for that work.
"Florida is home to so many unique species of plants and animals, and it is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to protect them," Payne said.
The August survey was the third of four surveys PIE Center officials hope to conduct every year, to track public opinion on important agriculture and natural resources issues over time. Previous topics have included water and immigration. The fourth survey, expected later this year, will cover perceptions about food and agricultural practices.
The PIE Center will host a webinar on endangered species Wednesday. To register, go to http://piecenter.com/easy-as-pie/
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