Washington, DC -- A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service relied on flawed biology in failing to protect the Florida panther. The court's findings mirror concerns raised by one of the agency's own biologists who is now facing termination, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
This past Friday, U.S. District Judge James Robertson revoked a permit for a limestone mine slated for excavation amid 6,000 acres of endangered Florida panther habitat in the Western Everglades region near Ft. Myers. The judge ruled that the Fish & Wildlife Service illegally ignored scientific evidence indicating that further human intrusion could jeopardize the small remaining population of Florida panthers. There are only an estimated 87 of these big cats left in existence and they are considered among the rarest mammals on the planet.
Andrew Eller is a 17-year biologist who worked on the biological opinion for the proposed Florida Rock Industries limestone mine that was struck down by the court. Eller has publicly raised the very weaknesses cited by the judge in ruling that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had been "arbitrary and capricious" in finding no potential harm to the endangered panther:
- Agency managers insisted on using faulty panther population and habitat studies;
- Eller and other biologists were under orders to issue "no jeopardy" opinions on projects (thus allowing construction to proceed) regardless of the facts;
- Eller was threatened with adverse performance reviews if he concluded that a project may pose some jeopardy for a federally endangered animal; and
- The agency turned a blind eye to the cumulative effects of multiple development projects on the panther.
Eller raised these issues publicly in a challenge filed with PEER accusing the Fish & Wildlife Service of violating the Data Quality Act for knowingly using flawed science. In reply, the agency admitted some of the flaws but contended that no regulatory decision was affected by the challenged data (a contention invalidated by Judge Robertson's decision). After making that admission, the Fish & Wildlife proposed to fire Eller on precisely the grounds for which he had been previously threatened.
"Political pressure forces federal biologists, like Andy Eller, to make choices daily between following the law and their consciences on one hand and the orders from their superiors on the other," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization is assembling a legal defense team for Eller. "In a just world, the Fish & Wildlife Service leadership who the judge found to be violating the very laws they are charged with enforcing should be fired, not Andy Eller."
The National Wildlife Federation, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Florida Panther Society brought the lawsuit against the Florida Rock permit.