Data on Fla. Panthers Faulty and Incomplete, Wildlife Agency Says

Associated Press
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page A15

Criticized by a whistle-blower, the Fish and Wildlife Service conceded yesterday that it bungled some of the science used in protecting Florida's endangered panthers.

The agency acknowledged three violations of a 2000 law that is intended to ensure the quality of data the government uses. The infractions involved the issuing of documents based on faulty assumptions about the habitat of one of the world's rarest animals, agency officials said.

Steve Williams, who resigned last week as director, reached the new conclusions as one of his last actions at the agency, based on a review by three senior Interior Department officials.

Dan Ashe, the service's top science adviser and a member of the review panel, said the agency relied too much on data collected only in late-morning hours to establish the panthers' home range. Panthers are most active at dawn and dusk. The agency said it now would protect more varieties of habitat but not more acreage.

"I think the service was slow in responding to the changing science," Ashe said. "Those documents did not represent a complete and accurate picture of Florida panther habitat needs." Officials stopped short of saying they had vindicated Andrew Eller, a Fish and Wildlife biologist fired in November who filed a whistle-blower complaint that the agency used faulty science to approve development in panther habitats.

Eller and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group, challenged Fish and Wildlife in a petition last May under the Data Quality Act.

Agency officials earlier said Eller was consistently late in completing his work and engaged in unprofessional exchanges with the public. Eller described his firing as politically motivated.

The government created the 26,000-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in 1989.

The breeding population is thought to be below 50, the minimum needed to sustain the population.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company