Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed to terminate the biologist who publicly challenged its reliance on flawed studies related to the habitat and population of the endangered Florida panther, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The agency’s action comes one week after it acknowledged the validity of the concerns he raised.
Andrew Eller, Jr., a 17-year FWS biologist, has spent the past ten years working in the Florida panther recovery program. On May 4 in a legal challenge filed jointly with PEER, Eller publicly charged that studies relied upon by FWS to make decisions about proposed development in Southwest Florida inflate panther population and inaccurately minimize habitat needs. On July 7, the agency replied to the challenge stating:
“We acknowledge that despite being published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, some of the information you are challenging has, over time, been determined to have limitations…”
But despite this admission, the agency said it would 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.
One week later, 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, known as the Western Everglades.
“When it comes to intimidating its own scientists, the Fish and Wildlife Service is about as subtle as a Mack truck,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the agency recently held an all-employee “Town Hall” meeting to tout its “excellence in science.” “The Fish and Wildlife Service is signaling that under the Bush Administration scientists who won’t play ball will be blackballed.”
By waiting until 2006 to correct these scientific flaws, the Fish and Wildlife Service will be able to approve a string of mega-developments planned in the Western Everglades. Principal problems cited by Eller 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.
Eller has 30 days to respond to the proposed termination. If the agency does remove him, he can challenge the action before the Merit Systems Protection Board, the federal civil service court.
“Scientific dissent is not a firing offense,” added Ruch whose organization provides legal support for environmental agency whistleblowers. “Although the Fish and Wildlife Service is under tremendous political pressure to approve these projects, it should not be insisting that its scientists become biostitutes.”