Agency: Data on
endangered panthers flawed
WASHINGTON - Criticized by a
whistle-blower, the Fish and Wildlife Service conceded Monday that
it bungled some of the science used in protecting Florida's
The agency acknowledged three violations of a 2000 law that is
intended to ensure the quality of data the government uses. Those
involved issuing documents based on faulty assumptions about the
habitat of one of the world's rarest animals, agency officials
Steve Williams, the agency's outgoing director, reached the
conclusions as one of his last actions, 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 variety 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." He said the
agency will withdraw and reissue several documents on the
About five years ago, before the complaint was filed, the agency
began rethinking its assumptions about panther habitat by convening
a study group, said Sam Hamilton, a regional Fish and Wildlife
director in Atlanta. He said it's now believed the panther uses "a
mosaic of habitats" rather than just primarily forests.
Because of that, said Jay Slack, who supervises Fish and
Wildlife's South Florida ecological services office in Vero Beach,
the agency will expand protections for more habitat such as prairie,
wetlands, pasture and rows of crops where other animals feed.
"It's not just acreage, it's quality," Slack said.
Officials stopped short of saying they had vindicated Andrew
Eller, a Fish and Wildlife biologist fired in November who worked in
Slack's office. Eller filed a whistle-blower complaint that the
agency used faulty science to approve development in panther
"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
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," but Hamilton called that
"a gross exaggeration or stretch of the facts" because he said those
decisions would be made "using best science."
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 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
panthers' population to roughly quadruple over the last 25 years,
but still there are only about 80 to 90 adults and a few dozen
kittens, Fish and Wildlife officials estimate.
The breeding population 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
ON THE NET
Fish and Wildlife Service: http://endangered.fws.gov/i/A05.html
Florida Panther Net: http://www.panther.state.fl.us
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: http://www.peer.org
National Wildlife Federation: http://www.nwf.org