The News-Press
  Environment - March 28, 2005

Fla. panther count found to be flawed

Wildlife agency to correct methods

Published by on March 22, 2005

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WASHINGTON U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials acknowledged Monday their methodology of counting endangered Florida panthers was wrong.

Environmentalists welcomed the announcement but worried it will do nothing to slow the pace of growth in Southwest Florida, which is gobbling up precious panther habitat.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service currently is reviewing 30 very large projects slated for construction right in the middle of prime panther habitat," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials promised to correct the flawed panther-count data but those corrections may not be done in time to determine the true impact on panther habitat from large construction projects already on the books, including Ave Maria University, Southwest Florida International Airport expansion and several gated communities, Ruch said.

Over the past 25 years, Florida panther numbers have approximately quadrupled to nearly 90, according to the agency's press release.

A spokesman for the government agency deflected Ruch's criticism.

"We're going to continue to apply the best available science on every permit request we get," said Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ruch's organization had claimed the government agency undercounted the

Florida panthers, primarily by counting the animals and tracking their movements during the day even though the creatures are nocturnal and more active at night.

Also, the agency made assumptions about the survivability of panther kittens that were overly optimistic, Ruch said.

In a statement Monday, Fish and Wildlife Service officials credited the agency with acting to correct the panther count once flaws were identified.

"However, we should have moved more quickly to incorporate this evolving knowledge into some planning documents and biological opinions, an oversight that we regret and are working to correct," Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Marshall Jones said.

To fix the problem, the agency plans to update several panther-related documents and files.

The agency, however, did not move to reinstate Andrew Eller Jr., an 18-year biologist with the agency.

Eller was fired last November. Eller and PEER filed a complaint alleging the Fish and Wildlife Service engaged in scientific fraud.

PEER is contesting Eller's termination. The case is set for an April hearing, according to the group's news release on Monday's announcement.

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