Washington, DC -- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists are threatened with poor performance ratings and other sanctions if they express official concern about the effects of construction projects on the endangered Florida panther, according to a legal filing released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER is petitioning the Fish & Wildlife Service Director to end political interference in studies related to the habitat and population of the panther and to allow scientists to make judgments based on reliable data.
PEER represents a scientist, Andrew Eller, Jr., a 17-year FWS biologist, who has charged his agency with scientific fraud. The agency responded by admitting problems vowing to keep relying on flawed data until 2006, by which time several major developments in Southwest Florida may be approved for construction within shrinking panther habitat. The agency has also moved to fire the scientist who revealed the fraud.
The new Florida panther petition is filed jointly by PEER and Eller under the Data Quality Act which requires each federal agency to ensure and maximize "the quality, objectivity and integrity of information" it disseminates to the public and uses to in its decision-making. The FWS Director, Steve Williams, will now assemble an advisory panel of scientists from outside the region to review the controversy and recommend a decision to him.
"The Florida panther is a textbook case of biological science being trumped by political science," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that a number of very large and politically wired mega-projects in southwest Florida are now lined up for federal approval. "This all about a decision to allow the Western Everglades to be paved over."
"The main reason I pursued this challenge is a desire to reduce pressures on biologists at the Vero Beach office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to ignore sound panther science," said Eller who reported being ordered to incorporate flawed information in biological opinions under threat of insubordination. He was later removed from panther work altogether because supervisors feared that he might write a jeopardy biological opinion, which was forbidden in the office. He was then instructed not to talk about panthers to colleagues lest he "contaminate their views."
Principal problems cited by Eller and PEER include --
- Equating daytime habitat use patterns (when the panther is at rest) with nighttime habitat use patterns (when the panther is most active);
- Assuming all known panthers are breeding adults, discounting juvenile, aged or ill animals; and
- Using population estimates, reproductive rates, and survival rates not supported by field data.
On July 13, the FWS served Eller with a notice of proposed termination for "unacceptable" performance. Many of the assignments cited by the Service involve the controversies surrounding the science on the endangered panther and other threatened species in one of the fastest growing areas of the country.