Is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the Next MMS?
Pick to Lead Fish & Wildlife Service Due: Florida Panther Poses First Litmus Test
Washington, DC — The choice to fill the vacant U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director position will be a key to whether any eco-lessons were learned from the Gulf spill disaster, according to a letter to President Obama sent today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Like the disbanded Minerals Management Service, FWS is an Interior Department agency repeatedly tarred by scandal during the Bush years but its posture and behavior have yet to change under Obama.
President Obama’s first choice to lead FWS, Sam Hamilton, was a long-time agency insider who died suddenly this February. His post has been vacant for five months and the identity of his replacement will tell whether the Obama administration will continue a business-as-usual course on wildlife protection.
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico created a number of victims, including the wildlife of the region. Especially vulnerable are wildlife already in dire straits, such as than those listed (or which deserve to be listed) under the Endangered Species Act, whose administration is one of the main FWS responsibilities.
Despite the obvious impact of oil spills, FWS did not raise concerns about a single permit issued in the Gulf – a failure that is now under internal review. The lapses of FWS on oil permits are typical, however, as the agency invoked the Endangered Species Act only once in 6,000 permits it reviewed in the Gulf States, according to documents analyzed by PEER.
Perhaps no animal is more indicative of the decline at FWS than the Florida panther, the iconic big cat which has been listed as an endangered species since 1967. Today, FWS and the state are monitoring through radio collars only 20 of the estimated 113 remaining Florida panthers. The 20 monitored cats are less than half those monitored in 2006 and the lowest number monitored in more than 20 years. Some radio collars also reportedly lack functioning batteries. Radio telemetry is the principal means of tracking elusive panthers, as well as determining habitat needs and outmigration of cats seeking new territory. One FWS employee candidly explained the drop in monitoring this way:
“If we were tracking more panthers people would expect us to protect them.”
This observation is unfortunately true, as Florida panthers are being killed in record numbers. Thus far in 2010, ten Florida panthers have been killed by cars. Six of the cats were female, one with kittens (never found). Nonetheless, FWS is approving new development and road networks in panther country.
The Florida panther has lost 95% of its historic range but FWS has refused to designate critical habitat, a designation that would prevent further loss of land essential for the panther’s recovery. PEER and a coalition of groups have sued FWS to force it to set aside sufficient area to allow the panther population to recover to sustainable levels.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service is going through a charade of pretending to protect the Florida panther because the agency’s leadership does not want to admit what they say privately – the Florida panther will not survive in the wild because the Service has no intention of taking the steps needed to save the cat from becoming a zoo species,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “In order to revitalize this agency, President Obama’s nominee must be a break from its tarnished past. He or she must be an individual who recognizes the alarming loss of habitat and perilous plight of wildlife in America. Above all, this nominee must be someone truly dedicated to the promise of the Endangered Species Act.”