Circle of strife: Predators, protectors… Danger in declawing, defanging the Endangered Species Act

It’s always front-page news when an alligator kills a human. The same would be true for a bear mauling or an attack by a mountain lion or shark.We are hard-wired for horror when a top predator kills one of us. It happens rarely, but when it does, television cameras spark with an impulse older than lights on a Christmas tree.

At the same time, the panthers or gators we may have hunted down after dragging a person into a canal are also on a thousand bronze statues, representing the highest order of strength, endurance and accomplishment.

Protect or eradicate? Honor or revile?Decades ago, Congress decided that saving species from extinction is the right thing to do. The federal Endangered Species Act’s underlying value is to protect the diversity of life. In fact, only a few endangered species are top predators.

Protecting key species — such as the Florida panther or American crocodile — should, in principle, protect habitats the species need to survive. A particular economic activity that affects habitat may trigger the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. In particular, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to review the proposed activity through a formal biological opinion, written by staff biologists. The biological opinion should address the threat to the listed species based on science. That’s the principal.

Not in the state of Florida, however, where biological opinions are authored, at least in part, by the same developers, miners and economic interests seeking to block an adverse finding in court.

The story was reported last week by journalist Craig Pittman in the St. Petersburg Times. “To speed things up (due to our heavy workload) we are asking the consultant for each project that adversely affects panthers to prepare a BO (biological opinion) based on a template BO that we will send you,” federal biologist John Wrublik wrote in the e-mail to RaeAnn Boylan, a consultant for a Lee County project to widen a road through panther habitat. Wrublik wrote in his e-mail that adapting the “template” to fit various projects destroying panther habitat should be “pretty straightforward,” requiring only some “deleting and inserting” of information “where appropriate.”

In 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not too swamped with paperwork to fire an 18-year employee, biologist Andy Eller, one week after he had written a biological opinion against Mirasol, a development proposed for panther habitat in Collier County.

Eller’s case quickly became a national cause celebre, an example of intense political pressure on science — one of the most egregious legacies of the Bush White House.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an organization that supports whistleblowers who work for government agencies, said about scientists like Eller, “The essential dilemma is that they are paid to conduct defensible scientific reviews but face possible termination if they accurately report what they have found.”

An endless stream of money has been spent by special interests to declaw, defang and decommission the Endangered Species Act, one of the most important laws protecting America’s natural heritage.

Mirasol is the project of a West Virginia coal-mine owner whose advocacy in Congress for mountaintop removal to mine coal may have led to expectations how the conflict between the environment and the force of progress would resolve in Florida.

Recently, I happened to see a dead top predator. It was early evening on an edge road in south Miami-Dade County. Only minutes before my arrival, a panther crossing the road had been struck by a car.

I pulled up in front of what I took to be a lifeless dog. Locked in the headlights, it was one of Florida’s premier endangered species, dead in the road, blood congealing on its broken jaw and torn skin.

Nearby, a rock miner is seeking permits to build a small city of 6,000 homes in an area significantly impacting wetlands.

Today, Florida is seeking to wrestle control of wetlands jurisdiction from the federal government.

In 2005, Andy Eller was reinstated to his job at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the agency admitted fault in distorting science related to panther habitat near the proposed Mirasol development.

For risking his career, Eller received an award from the Everglades Coalition.

And over the weekend, the alligator that took the life of a Broward woman was hauled from the canal not far from the tragic accident and shot. Two more people have been killed by alligators in the past week, despite the fact that attacks on humans by alligators are exceedingly rare.

So far this year, six panthers have been killed on Florida roads.

What conflicting and contradictory impulses carry us on our brief journey?

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