Faulty Science Could Affect Florida Panther Population

WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said Monday questions about the quality of the science underlying Fish and Wildlife Service decisions on protecting the Florida panther had led him to doubt the effectiveness of the actual preservation efforts and the process by which they were established.

In a letter to FWS Director Steven Williams, Lieberman raised a number of concerns about how the agency ensures policies are based on the best available science. In doing so, he cited the report of an independent review team that found errors in scientific reports related to the management of the endangered cat. According to the report, the errors were made by a scientist involved in the panther recovery program. He is also an advisor to applicants for dredge and fill permits, which are often required for development in the western Everglades.

“The substantial federal investment in efforts to protect the Florida panther is placed at risk by failures in scientific analysis of the habitat needs of the panther, as well as failures to implement the requirements of federal law effectively,” Lieberman wrote.

The Senator sought information from FWS on how it protects against the biases of people who are involved in the agency’s scientific findings. What went wrong with the peer review process that failed to detect the errors in the panther literature, as identified by the science review team? And what is the FWS doing to address these problems?

The independent science review team said errors in the panther literature include measurements that were taken during the day but which claim to represent 24-hour periods in the panthers’ activities; reliance on locations, rather than panthers, to determine habitat use; selective use of data; and unsound conclusions.

The FWS and the Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for ensuring that dredge and fill permits – issued under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act – do not jeopardize endangered species. Although, at one time, the Florida panther ranged from the Atlantic coast into Louisiana and Tennessee, an estimated 30 to 70 panthers are left, all in southwest Florida.

The panther literature helps inform the permitting process.

In August 2003, Lieberman wrote the FWS, and two other agencies responsible for overseeing southwestern Florida wetlands, criticizing the government’s apparent disregard for the cumulative environmental impact of development in the area. Hundreds of acres of wetland are lost each year, due to development in southwest Florida. The FWS response to that letter never mentioned the undertaking of the new study, despite Lieberman’s specific request for information of that type.

Attached is a copy of the letter: