U.S. agency bungled Florida panther needs
Review acknowledges flawed data used to allow development

The Associated Press

Updated: 3:32 p.m. ET March 21, 2005


WASHINGTON - The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed Monday with a whistleblower’s complaint that it bungled some of the science used in protecting Florida’s endangered panthers from several development projects.

The agency conceded it violated the Data Quality Act of 2000 in three instances by issuing documents based on faulty assumptions about the habitat of one of the world’s rarest animals. That conclusion, based on a review by senior Interior Department officials, is one of the last actions of outgoing Fish and Wildlife Director Steve Williams.

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. Agency officials said they hadn’t studied whether data collected at other hours might indicate the panthers need a bigger or smaller habitat.

Slow to see 'changing science'
“I think the service was slow in responding to the changing science,” Ashe said in a telephone conference call Monday. “Those documents did not represent a complete and accurate picture of Florida panther habitat needs.”

He said the agency will withdraw and reissue several documents on the panthers.

Ashe stopped short of saying that the action vindicated Andrew Eller, a Fish and Wildlife biologist fired in November. Eller had filed a whistleblower complaint that the agency used faulty science to approve construction projects in panther habitats.

“The word vindicate is one of those words people use when they’re trying to make a point,” said Ashe, who called the agency’s response an “objective and independent review” of Eller’s complaints.

Activists: Biologist still being fired
Eller and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group, jointly challenged Fish and Wildlife in a petition last May under the Data Quality Act.

Jeff Ruch, PEER’s director, said his group was “gratified, but constrained in that gratification, in that they’re persisting in firing the biologist who they now admit was right.”

Ruch said he was concerned that corrections to the data may not be made in time to stop “30 mega-projects that may be approved based on what they admit are inaccurate assumptions.”

Agency officials earlier had responded to Eller by saying he was consistently late in completing his work and engaged in unprofessional exchanges with the public. Eller described his office in Vero Beach, Fla., as understaffed and his firing as politically motivated because he wanted to protect panthers from roads, houses and other developers’ projects.

The government created the 26,000-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in 1989. That and other measures have helped the panther’s population to roughly quadruple over the last 25 years but still there are only about 90 of them.

The breeding population, however, is considered to be below 50, the minimum required to sustain the population. Almost half of the panthers’ habitat is on private property spread across several southwestern Florida counties.

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