Distorting Scientific Knowledge on Florida Panthers

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

According to a senior biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), agency officials knowingly used flawed science in the agency's assessment of the endangered Florida panther’s habitat and viability in order to facilitate proposed real estate development in southwest Florida.1

Andrew Eller, Jr., a biologist who worked at the FWS for 18 years, charged that agency officials knowingly inflated data about panther population viability, and minimized assessments of the panthers’ habitat needs.2 The FWS used the flawed data as a basis for several documents, including its Multi-species Recovery Plan3 and at least 19 biological opinions, which were used to approve development applications. The Army Corps of Engineers used the same pattern of errors in its Southwest Florida Environmental Impact Statement. Over the past decade, FWS has approved permits for development on tens of thousands of acres of panther habitat.4

Under the George W. Bush administration, Eller felt officials were unwilling to correct inaccurate science that underlies habitat assessment practices. In frustration over the situation, Eller filed a legal complaint against the government with the help of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Eller, who worked for over a decade in Florida's Panther Recovery Program, stated, “I could no longer tolerate the scientific charade in which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are trying to pretend that the Florida panther is not in jeopardy.”5

Among the charges in Eller’s complaint was the allegation that FWS assessments inflated estimates of Florida panther populations by erroneously assuming that all known panthers are breeding adults. This analysis discounted juvenile, aged, and ill animals.

In addition, Eller charged, the FWS knowingly minimized assessments of the panther's habitat needs by equating daytime habitat use patterns (when the panther is at rest) with nighttime habitat use patterns (when the panther is most active).6 The FWS also employed a controversial model developed by Dr. David Maehr, known as “panther habitat evaluation model” or PHEM, which posited that panthers inhabited only large tracts of unbroken forest.7 Any other land, such as wetland or smaller pieces of forested land, was deemed not to be essential panther habitat—and was therefore open to development.

The serious errors in the science used to guide agency actions were identified by members of a scientific advisory subteam that was organized by the FWS in 1999 to help develop a habitat conservation strategy for the panther. Although Maehr was a member of the FWS subteam, several others members published research showing that Florida panthers range through a mosaic of habitats, and critiqued the biased data samples and other inaccuracies in the PHEM model. In 2002, the FWS issued a Landscape Conservation Strategy based on the subteam's work, but the report included contradictory information, since it did not repudiate the PHEM model.8

In the context of this disagreement, FWS then convened (in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) an independent four-member Scientific Review Team (SRT) to evaluate panther habitat needs. This team, led by conservation biologist Paul Beier, issued a report in 2003 that criticized the PHEM model and the use of flawed science by the agency, and urged that the flaws be corrected.9

Jane Comiskey, a researcher at the University of Tennessee and one of eight outside experts on the subteam, expressed concern that FWS did not allow the subteam to incorporate comments from the SRT and other peer-reviewers that would resolve contradictions in the Draft Landscape Conservation Strategy. “We were convened to deliver a peer-reviewed document to FWS, and until we are allowed to incorporate review comments,” Comiskey contended in 2004, “we will not have done the job we were called upon to do by the federal government.”10

Meanwhile, the FWS knowingly continued to disseminate the inaccurate information. As stated in Eller’s legal complaint, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s policy contends that no development project in southwest Florida constitutes jeopardy for the panther; the agency is simply relying on science that they know has been discredited.”11

As Comiskey noted, “An agency charged with using the best available science to protect panthers should not object to correcting known errors. Panther recovery is a well-funded program with a world-class capture team, dedicated field biologists, a wealth of accumulated data, and strong public support. There’s no reason not to get the science right. There are legitimate interests that conflict with those of panthers, but policy channels are provided to resolve those conflicts, outside the context of science.”12

In November 2004, days after the presidential election, Andrew Eller was fired from the FWS. However, in March 2005 Eller’s legal complaint was upheld, and the FWS publicly conceded that it had indeed been using flawed science. Environmental News Service reported that the FWS “accepted the recommendation of a panel of senior Interior Department officials that found the agency did not move quickly enough to correct scientific information related to Florida panthers and disseminated uncorrected documents.”13 The outgoing head of FWS wrote a letter to Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of PEER, promising that FWS would update the panther sections of its Multi-species Recovery Plan and stop disseminating the Draft Landscape Conservation Strategy.14

Andrew Eller was reinstated to his job at the FWS in June 2005.15 A few months later the FWS published a revised species recovery plan that presented a new model of panther habitat, based this time on accurate science.16

1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Regulatory profile: Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi).
2. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). 2004. Andrew J. Eller and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility v. Department of Interior. May 4, 2004.

3. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2007. South Florida Multi-Species Recovery Plan.

4. Gross, L. 2005. Why Not the Best? How Science Failed the Florida Panther. PLoS Biol. 3(9): e333.
5. UCS interview with Andrew Eller, May 2004.

6. PEER 2004.

7. Kostyack, J. and Hill, K. 2004. Discrediting a Decade of Panther Science. National Wildlife Federation, Florida Wildlife Federation and the Florida Panther Society. January.
8. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2002. Draft Florida Panther Landscape Conservation Strategy. South Florida Ecosystem Office: Vero Beach, Florida.

9. Beier, P., Vaughan, M.R., Conroy, M.J. and Quigley, H. 2003. An Analysis of Scientific Literature Related to the Florida Panther. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. December.
10. UCS communication with Jane Comiskey via email, July 2004.
11. Eller 2004. Also see PEER 2004.
12. Comiskey 2004.
13. Fish and Wildlife Service Must Correct Panther Information. 2005. Environmental News Service, March 21.
14. Williams, S. 2005. Letter to Jeff Ruch. March 16.
15. Pittman, C. 2005. Florida biologist who fought for panthers is reinstated to job. St. Petersburg Times, July 1.
16. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006. Florida Panther Recovery Plan, Third Revision. FWS Southeast Region: Atlanta, Georgia. January 31.


We Need Your Support
to Make Change Happen

We can ensure that decisions about our health, safety, and environment are based on the best available science—but not without you. Your generous support helps develop science-based solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.