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Panther Advocate Fights to Get Job Back

Panthers or girlfriend? Girlfriend or panthers?

He chose the panthers.

In Florida, Eller met Dave Maehr, then the most renowned expert on the Florida panther. Maehr, a former state wildlife scientist who became a development consultant, had authored the definitive scientific studies about the Florida panther's habits. By the late 1990s, Eller said, he was certain that Maehr's work was riddled with errors that favored developers -- as when it said, for instance, that the wide-ranging panther seldom strayed far from forests. But Eller had no leverage to air his concerns.

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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"He couldn't counter 'the world's greatest expert on panthers,' " said Jane Comiskey, a University of Tennessee researcher who sat on a review committee that was critical of Maehr's work. "It would have been, 'Who are you?' " Southwest Florida was booming at the time, and Eller said the 1993 panther-protection plan that he helped write -- which said development threatened to make the panther extinct -- was being trumped by Maehr's work. New roads, mines, golf courses and housing tracts were flying from blueprint to groundbreaking. "It was like watching a slow-motion nuclear bomb," Eller said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was rubber-stamping development projects and forcing Eller and others to place flawed science in their reports, he said. In December 2001, Eller said, he was ordered to overstate the health of the panther population so as not to impede an expansion of Southwest Florida International Airport, outside Naples. He caved.

"Essentially, I was a patsy," Eller said. "I lost a lot of innocence."

Agonizing over what he had done, Eller said, he decided to begin challenging management, especially the agency's regional head, James "Jay" Slack.

"Jay's ability to move up the ladder is contingent on doing favors for powerful, influential people," Eller said.

Slack disputes Eller's characterization, saying he is motivated by a desire to "do good conservation." Slack said that his office has done much to protect the panther, such as setting aside habitat, and that the agency has been "the catalyst" for improving scientific analysis of the panther's habits.

Eller said his work life deteriorated after the airport confrontation. He accuses the agency of dumping impossible workloads on him to make it appear that he was not keeping up with his job. Repeatedly, he said, he was asked to include false data in his reports. So he began to talk.

The once-shy biologist found that reporters were eager to listen.

"I think I found a new drug -- the novelty of the media buzz," he said. "A lot of my co-workers said I looked better than I had in years."

By 2003, Maehr's work had been discredited, deemed "bad science" by a scientific review board appointed jointly by Fish and Wildlife and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. (Maehr said in a recent interview that he stands by the main conclusions of his study and described Eller as unqualified to take positions on panther habits.) But less than a year later, Eller was out of a job.

There have been other flashes of vindication, such as being honored in January by the Everglades Coalition, a consortium of environmental groups, as the person in public service who has contributed the most to the health of the Everglades. But primarily, Eller spends his days sifting through stacks of paper, trying to build a case in the little apartment in Vero Beach -- alone.

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