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Biologist who fought for panthers reinstated

He was fired after challenging the science used to justify building on panther habitat.

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published June 30, 2005


For six years biologist Andy Eller reviewed development permits to make sure that subdivisions built in the western Everglades would not wipe out habitat for the endangered Florida panther.

But Eller's bosses at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overruled him and developers went around him, even calling Florida's U.S. senators to get approval for projects.

Last year, Eller blew the whistle. He filed a formal complaint charging that the Fish and Wildlife Service was using flawed science and that its failure to oppose developers was jeopardizing the panther. He got fired.

Three months ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service conceded he was right after all, and its science was flawed. On Wednesday, the 46-year-old Eller was reinstated.

"The parties reached a settlement agreement amenable to both sides," said Jeff Fleming, assistant regional director for the wildlife agency.

But Eller probably won't be working in Florida anymore, and agency officials did not admit that firing him was wrong. They said he was fired not because of his complaints, but because he was too slow in reviewing development permits.

Eller, whose appeal of his firing was supposed to be heard by a civil service board this week, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He was represented by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, but because of the agreement, executive director Jeff Ruch said he could say little except that Eller wants to work "in another part of the country."

Eller's firing the day after the November election made the shy and bookish scientist a star among activists who have accused the Bush administration of abandoning science on other environmental issues, such as oil drilling in national wildlife refuges.

His reinstatement was greeted as a victory by environmental groups that had embraced his cause.

"This indicates a lot of what he was saying was correct," said Tom Reese, a St. Petersburg lawyer who has represented the Florida Wildlife Federation in lawsuits over panther issues.

Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club called it "a vindication" and blasted Eller's bosses for putting politics over panthers. He said it should "encourage all scientists who have legitimate reason to blow the whistle on federal agencies for using bad science to stand their ground."

Florida panthers once roamed the entire state.

But as of 2002, experts estimated only 80 were left in the wild. Virtually all of them are confined to southwest Florida, one of the fastest-growing areas of the state.

Because much of the land in the western Everglades is swamp, developers frequently need permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to destroy wetlands.

The corps must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service when plans might affect an endangered species.

But as Eller reviewed those projects and raised questions, his bosses would tell him to back down.

"They said I needed to be sensitive to the politics of the office," he said in an interview last year.

They wanted to avoid angering political contributors who might need development permits, and who could cause the agency trouble in Congress, he said. "They were afraid that if we generated any controversy over the Endangered Species Act, Congress would tamper with the funding for the regional office or for the endangered species program."

So the wildlife agency would say repeatedly that building subdivisions, mines, airport runways and schools would not jeopardize the future existence of panthers. For a while, Eller went along with it, but then decided to challenge the science used to justify wiping out so much panther habitat.

Eller said the agency used daytime habitat patterns, when panthers sleep and seldom move about, instead of nighttime habitat patterns, when panthers are most active. That limited the size of habitat that appeared to be needed.

He also said the agency assumed all known panthers are breeding adults, discounting kittens and old animals that can't breed. That tended to inflate the species' chances of survival.

And he said they used population estimates, reproductive rates and kitten survival rates not supported by field data, making the panther population appear healthier than it was.

Three months ago, after Eller's accusations were verified by an independent scientific review, agency officials conceded he was right and changed their scientific approach.

However, agency officials said that decision would not affect any of the permits already approved.

Last year a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service had improperly issued a permit for a new lime rock mine amid 6,000 acres of panther habitat near Fort Myers.

The judge said two agencies failed to consider the cumulative impact of approving so many other developments.

[Last modified June 30, 2005, 00:59:15]


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