Woodland stream.
 
News
3/22/2005

Errors admitted in panther data

Biologist's claims found to be valid; study on habitat will be revised.

By David Fleshler

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday admitted distributing flawed scientific data on the Florida panther, conceding the merits of a complaint by a whistleblower who was fired last year.

The agency announced it would revise documents that understated the panther's habitat and painted an over-optimistic picture of its prospects, after an internal review found these documents included errors and discredited science. But the agency said it had already been moving to correct these mistakes before the complaint was filed.

"The law requires us to use the best science available, and information available to us continuously evolves," said Sam Hamilton, the agency's southeastern regional director, in a statement. "As we learn more about panther ecology, we improve the body of knowledge."

The review came after an agency biologist, Andrew Eller, filed a petition last May under the federal Data Quality Act accusing the agency of knowingly using flawed data to rubber-stamp eight construction projects in panther habitat.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group that represents government workers, including Eller, said the announcement didn't go far enough.

"While we are gratified by this decision, we are mystified why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service insists on firing the biologist who risked his career to expose this scientific fraud," said the group's executive director, Jeff Ruch, in a written statement. "We are concerned that the Fish and Wildlife Service has charged the very officials who perpetuated this fraud with correcting it."

Since he was fired last November, Eller has become a hero to environmentalists, who saw him as a symbol of scientific integrity in an administration that twisted the facts to suit its ideology. He received an ovation at the January meeting of the Everglades Coalition.

But Fish and Wildlife Service officials said Eller was fired for completing work late and engaging in unprofessional exchanges with the public. They said the agency was already moving to correct the scientific errors he pointed out, many of which had been discovered by a panel convened by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

On Monday, the agency acknowledged that it included in scientific documents information that understated the panther's habitat by relying only on data collected during the day, when the animals are least active. It admitted including erroneous information in four biological opinions that assessed the impact of projects proposed in panther habitat.

The four opinions each stated that the number of panthers in the wild well exceeded the minimum of 50 for a viable population. In fact, no panther biologists think 50 panthers are sufficient to sustain the species.

But Hamilton, the service's southeast regional director, said none of the modifications was significant enough to alter the conclusions approving the projects. He also declined comment on the decision to fire Eller, saying it was a personnel matter.

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4559.




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