Feb. 2, 2006 – The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week announced that it had elevated an official long criticized for his attempts to remove Florida panthers from the Endangered Species List. The promotion came even as FWS admitted earlier this week that the panthers are being crowded out by development.
Friday, the agency announced it was awarding James "Jay" Slack, the previous field supervisor for the FWS in Southern Florida, to the deputy directorâ€™s post of a mid-Western regional office. Slack has worked for the FWS for fourteen years, eight of which he spent as the head of the Southern Florida office. During his tenure there, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and other environmental groups sought to derail his efforts to open more protected habitats to developers.
The FWS South Florida Ecological Service Field Office in Vero Beach, Florida pushed to "de-list" the Florida panthers under Slackâ€™s leadership, arguing that they were well on their way to recovery and that the available habitat was ripe for the species to expand. PEER and FWS scientist Andrew Eller Jr. filed a complaint over the matter with the Department of the Interior in March 2004.
In his own work, Eller found that a previous study contained unverifiable and misleading information, an allegation confirmed later by the FWS itself. According to a July 2004 notice sent to the Army Corps of Engineers, FWS admitted it "mischaracterized" the contemporary numbers of panthers in Florida and the necessary habitat to sustain and grow the population.
Despite the admission, Eller was fired the day after the 2004 general elections, and he immediately made his case public with PEERâ€™s assistance. Days before a scheduled hearing over the termination, FWS and Eller reached a settlement and he is again working on the Florida panther project.
Ellerâ€™s claims that his agency has an inappropriately close relationship to powerful real estate developers to the detriment of the FWSâ€™s mission are not unique. A survey conducted jointly by the Union of Concerned Scientists and PEER early last year illustrated that many at FWS believe their agency is swayed by politics. The study, which surveyed 1,400 FWS scientists, found that overwhelming numbers had little or no respect for agency managers and that nearly half felt that political and other concerns had undue influence on FWS decision making.