The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the Next MMS?

Pick to Lead Fish & Wildlife Service Due: Florida Panther Poses First Litmus Test


The choice to fill the vacant U.S. Fish
& Wildlife Service Director position will be a key to whether any
eco-lessons were learned from the Gulf spill disaster, according to a
letter to President Obama sent today by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Like the disbanded Minerals
Management Service, FWS is an Interior Department agency repeatedly
tarred by scandal during the Bush years
but its posture and behavior have yet to change under Obama.

President Obama's first choice to lead FWS, Sam Hamilton, was a
long-time agency insider who died suddenly this February. His post has
been vacant for five months and the identity of his replacement will
tell whether the Obama administration will continue a business-as-usual
course on wildlife protection.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico created a number of
victims, including the wildlife of the region. Especially vulnerable
are wildlife already in dire straits, such as than those listed (or
which deserve to be listed) under the Endangered Species Act, whose
administration is one of the main FWS responsibilities.

Despite the obvious impact of oil spills, FWS did not raise
concerns about a single permit issued in the Gulf - a failure that is
now under internal review. The lapses of FWS on oil permits are
typical, however, as the agency invoked the Endangered Species Act only
once in 6,000 permits it reviewed in the Gulf States, according to
documents analyzed by PEER.

Perhaps no animal is more indicative of the decline at FWS than
the Florida panther, the iconic big cat which has been listed as an
endangered species since 1967. Today, FWS and the state are monitoring
through radio collars only 20 of the estimated 113 remaining Florida
panthers. The 20 monitored cats are less than half those monitored in
2006 and the lowest number monitored in more than 20 years. Some radio
collars also reportedly lack functioning batteries. Radio telemetry is
the principal means of tracking elusive panthers, as well as determining
habitat needs and outmigration of cats seeking new territory. One FWS
employee candidly explained the drop in monitoring this way:

"If we were tracking more panthers people would expect us to
protect them."

This observation is unfortunately
true, as Florida panthers are being killed in record numbers. Thus far
in 2010, ten Florida panthers have been killed by cars. Six of the cats
were female, one with kittens (never found). Nonetheless, FWS is
approving new development and road networks in panther country.

The Florida panther has lost 95% of its historic range but FWS
has refused to designate critical habitat, a designation that would
prevent further loss of land essential for the panther's recovery. PEER
and a coalition of groups have sued FWS to force it to set aside
sufficient area to allow the panther population to recover to
sustainable levels.

"The Fish & Wildlife Service is going through a charade of
pretending to protect the Florida panther because the agency's
leadership does not want to admit what they say privately - the Florida
panther will not survive in the wild because the Service has no
intention of taking the steps needed to save the cat from becoming a zoo
species," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "In order to
revitalize this agency, President Obama's nominee must be a break from
its tarnished past. He or she must be an individual who recognizes the
alarming loss of habitat and perilous plight of wildlife in America.
Above all, this nominee must be someone truly dedicated to the promise
of the Endangered Species Act."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.