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Do Florida's panthers have room to roam?
Federal biologist accuses U.S. agency of reducing habitat
The Associated Press
Updated: 2:11 p.m. ET May 04, 2004

WASHINGTON - With no more than 100 Florida panthers roaming the southwestern part of the state, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist is accusing the agency of putting developers’ needs ahead of the endangered cats.

Andrew Eller Jr., a Fish and Wildlife biologist for 17 years, filed a formal complaint Monday alleging the agency is knowingly using flawed science in key decisions affecting how much undeveloped land is set aside for the panthers.

“Panther literature considered 'best available science' by the USFWS contains unsupported assumptions, uses inappropriate analytical methods and selectively uses data to support conclusions,” Eller said in his complaint.

He said agency figures are being inflated and habitat needs minimized. For example, daytime and nightly habitat use patterns are wrongly equated and all panthers are falsely assumed to be breeding adults to show a higher reproduction rate, he said.

Eller said the agency should conclude that the animal’s existence is in jeopardy, which could require stricter protections against development.

“They’re all getting the green light — there’s no such thing as a caution or red light,” Eller, who lives in Vero Beach, Fla., told The Associated Press. “We’re losing habitat to urban development and agricultural land conversion quicker than it can be protected.”

On endangered list since 1967
Florida panthers have considered an endangered species since 1967. The tawny golden or pale brown, long-tailed cats, measuring up to 7 feet in length and weighing up to 150 pounds, are a subspecies of puma and are closely related to cougars and mountain lions in the West.

They once stalked Texas, Louisiana and the lower Mississippi River valley, but now are confined mostly to south Florida, within Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades.

Eller’s complaint was filed under the federal Data Quality Act of 2000, which requires agencies to use objective information in decision-making. He was joined in the complaint by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based advocacy group. Fish and Wildlife officials now have 60 days to respond.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Meghan Durham said she had not yet seen Eller’s complaint, but the agency has faced about a half-dozen such challenges in recent years.

Jay Slack, who supervises Fish and Wildlife’s South Florida ecological services office in Vero Beach, where Eller works, said the complaint would be studied.

“The issues are all familiar to us. A lot of the science with the Florida panther has been changing ... and I feel that we are on the forefront of this change,” Slack said.

Population rose since listing
State wildlife biologists share Eller’s concerns about development but express more hope for Florida panthers’ future, according to Henry Cabbage, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“I would agree that development is taking up Florida panther habitat,” he said. However, “We’re buying habitats, we’re doing research. What we’re doing is working.”

Officials put the Florida panther population at 80 to 100, up from 30 two decades ago. The National Wildlife Federation, an environmental group, says about 1,360 panthers once lived in Florida before European settlers arrived.

Since 2000, more than 60 panther kittens have been born in the wild in South Florida. About 40 percent of kittens don’t live to their first birthday, killed by predators, disease or lack of territory. Bigger males, which need about 200 square miles to roam, sometimes kill younger males for encroaching on their land.

© 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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