Group blasts wildlife official's promotion

By Jeremy Cox

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Jay Slack presided over tumultuous times at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Vero Beach office.

Under his watch as the field supervisor, critics accused the agency of knowingly using faulty science to give the green light to projects in Southwest Florida's panther territory. Last March, the agency acknowledged that the bad data had tainted three permitting decisions.

Last week, Slack received a promotion to one of the agency's offices in Denver, where he will oversee eight Western states as the deputy regional director of the Mountain-Prairie Region.

The Washington, D.C., watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has blasted the move, saying Slack should be fired, not promoted.

"What Jay Slack was doing was making sure that the paper moved through, and the service never raised environmental objections even though environmental objections were warranted," said PEER's executive director Jeff Ruch.

PEER officials point to a survey they conducted last year with another government watchdog that showed nearly two-thirds of Fish and Wildlife scientists who responded in Florida believed commercial interests were trumping science.

A press release from the nonprofit group accused Slack of perpetrating "scientific fraud" and likened his promotion to appointing former Enron chief Ken Lay to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.

PEER's harsh criticism drew a call for an apology Friday from Fish and Wildlife.

"We are disappointed that PEER, an organization which purports to support public employees, has gone out of its way to attack the reputation of a respected and capable career civil servant in this extremely personal manner. The allegations about Mr. Slack are untrue, and the use of the phrase 'scientific fraud' is a misrepresentation of the findings of our Information Quality Act review of the Florida panther," the agency said in a prepared statement.

Slack has been with the agency for 14 years, including eight years as the field supervisor of the South Florida Ecological Service Field Office in Vero Beach on the east coast.

The man who headed Fish and Wildlife during the panther controversy defended Slack on Friday as an able policy enforcer.

"My interaction with Jay was nothing but on a very professional basis," said Steve Williams, who directed the agency from 2002 to 2005 and is now the president of the private Wildlife Management Institute in Washington.

"He's well-respected in Fish and Wildlife Service for his abilities," Williams added. "He dealt with very contentious issues and he handled it well."

Slack couldn't be reached for comment at Fish and Wildlife's Denver or Atlanta offices. An official at the Denver office said he hadn't arrived at his new job yet.

His vacated position in Vero Beach remains open.

PEER joined Fish and Wildlife biologist Andy Eller in a complaint that charged the agency had violated a 2000 law intended to ensure the government uses good data.

One of Eller's complaints charged officials were relying on studies that used Florida panthers' daytime movements to determine their preferred habitat. Panthers, though, are nocturnal creatures.

The agency fired Eller, a 17-year veteran with the agency who had once worked in its Naples office, citing frequent delays in completing his work.

Eller said the move was politically motivated and filed an appeal that led to a settlement last year. The one-time whistle blower is now a biologist at a national wildlife refuge that Fish and Wildlife manages in Kentucky.

As a result, agency officials vowed to withdraw and rewrite several key panther documents.

"That was a good example that information you get from science changes from time to time, and the service is responsive to it," Williams said. "I don't think there was any malice or any of the things PEER alleges (against Slack)."

But Slack could have halted the use of the faulty science earlier, said Defenders of Wildlife's Florida director, Laurie Macdonald.

"What we saw was a continual eating away of habitat and habitat connections in the area under his jurisdiction," Macdonald said, adding that she was surprised at news of Slack's promotion within the agency.

The Florida panther is one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Most of the 80 or so survivors live in eastern Collier County, where new roads, subdivisions and a university are planned in coming years.

In a recovery plan released earlier this week, Fish and Wildlife officials said the future of the species depends on finding habitat north of the Caloosahatchee River and even in other states. The document calls for transplanting some of the big cats to establish new colonies.

© 2006 Naples Daily News and NDN Productions. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.