Woodland stream.

Protect the panther


The Florida panther is having enough trouble holding on to its habitat without flawed research from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that puts it in further peril.

Yet Fish and Wildlife officials conceded this week to faulty assumptions in writing a report on panthers' habitat, putting the panther population at risk. Despite a promising breeding program, the panther is losing habitat to development, which adversely affects its ability to survive. The agency's research is vital to helping officials determine how best to protect one of the world's rarest animals.

The service relied on data collected only in late-morning hours in order to establish the panthers' home range, according to a review panel. Panthers are most active at dawn and dusk. But agency officials said that they did not look at whether data collected at other hours might indicate that panthers need a larger or smaller habitat. As a result, the federal agency released inaccurate information that could harm Florida's own efforts to bolster and sustain the population.

As panthers lost habitat in the 1980s, they developed genetic defects, the result of greater inbreeding. In 1995, Florida's Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission sought to broaden the panthers' gene pool. It imported eight cougars from Texas and located them from Everglades National Park north to near Lake Okeechobee.

Five years later, there were between 30 and 50 panthers roaming Southwest Florida. Today, there are between 80 and 100. The program is succeeding. Still, the loss of habitat remains the greatest threat.

Only one person has been fired for the service's bungling -- biologist Andrew Eller, who first blew the whistle on the agency's lapse. Now Fish and Wildlife won't rehire him, even though its admission proves that his allegations were correct.

Mr. Eller should get his job back. Those responsible for the flawed data should be shown the door.



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