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Players: Andy Eller

Panther Advocate Fights to Get Job Back

Biologist Takes On Fish and Wildlife Service

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page A13


Visitors to Andy Eller's little apartment, far from the beach in this central Florida beach town, have a choice: Sit on the floor or wait for their host to go get the fold-up camping chair out of his truck.

Eller, now one of the most talked-about wildlife experts in Florida, has evolved into something of an ascetic. A small pile of toy stuffed animals -- mostly endangered species, of course -- passes for home decor. As for his social life, he has no wife, no kids, no obligations.

Andy Eller has been critical of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Florida for what he says is a system that favors developers over wildlife. (Dennis Giardina; Courtesy Of Andy Eller)

In Profile

Andy Eller

Title: Former biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (appealing for reinstatement after being fired last year)

Education: Bachelor's degree in forestry, Clemson University, 1986

Age: 46

Family: Single, never married.

Career highlights: Co-author of Florida Panther Habitat Protection Plan; helped acquire 6,000 acres in nine southeastern states for new national wildlife refuges; winner of the Everglades Coalition's 2005 James D. Webb public service award.

Pastimes: Rare-book collector and amateur hare-scramble motorcycle racer.

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This helps explain why an introvert with a tendency to speak in a barely audible monotone has swelled into a force to be reckoned with. Quite plainly, he does not have much to lose. Freed from most of the usual temporal worries, Eller has mounted a one-man campaign against what he says is a corrupt system within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that favors politically wired real estate developers over, well, fish and wildlife.

So far, it has not gone so well.

Eller was dismissed from his biologist job the day after November's presidential election. He was escorted out of his 18-year career carrying a pile of papers, a sweater and a frame holding postcards of paintings by the renowned Florida landscape artist A.E. "Bean" Backus.

Jeff Ruch of the national advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) says the firing turned Eller into Exhibit A in an underground war between Fish and Wildlife scientists and upper management.

A survey released last month by Ruch's group and the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that hundreds of the agency's scientists think scientific findings have been altered to help business or political interests at the expense of wildlife. Many scientists, the survey said, are afraid to speak out. When the survey was released, an agency spokesman disputed its conclusions.

PEER and its lawyers, who are engaged in a protracted legal contest to have Eller reinstated, have cast him as a classic whistle-blower, a martyr whose passion for protecting Florida panther habitat from development ran afoul of ethically compromised bureaucrats.

The Fish and Wildlife Service sees Eller differently -- essentially as a slacker, a habitually tardy employee who routinely failed to complete assignments on time despite written warnings to shape up. Agency officials, while declining to discuss specifics, have also repeatedly said that his firing has nothing to do with politics or with his string of publicly aired criticisms.

These competing versions of Andy Eller are being played out in a legal action that may peak when his case for reinstatement goes before the Merit Systems Protection Board this spring.

Eller can get a bit gushy about the Florida panther, a sleek and endangered subspecies of the puma that might have disappeared if not for the cougars that have been shipped from Texas to buck up populations at breeding time.

In 1993, while Eller was working for Fish and Wildlife in Atlanta, acquiring conservation land in the Southeast, a supervisor came by with a dream opportunity: a gig working on panther habitat protection in Florida.

"You know," Eller recalled his boss told him, "this means you're going to have to leave this cute little red-headed woman behind."

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