Science & Endangered Species: Best Available Politics? In Chapter 2 of my Wildlife Politics book, I discuss the role that science plays in governmental decisions about protecting species. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) mandates that the “best available science” be used for making decisions. However, in the chapter, I provide details on how this mandate is often overridden by two basic reasons. One concerns the limitations of science itself—often there is uncertainty, disagreement, and lack of good data to reach a strong consensus on threats to species. Consequently, “rules” have been employed to make decisions in such situations such as giving the benefit of the doubt to a threatened species and using the judgments of experts even if empirical data are limited. However, a second reason why science is not employed to make decisions is politics—political forces often mobilize to make decisions even in the face of empirical data that contradict these biases. I used a number of sources for my chapter but I just came across and read a book that I did not employ for that chapter—I wish I had because it provides valuable insights and case studies to the science versus politics debate: Todd Wilkinson’s Science Under Siege (Boulder: Johnson Book, 1998). It provides 8 case studies of scientists who work for and/or advise government agencies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Forest Service (FS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) on matters concerning endangered species and threats to ecosystems. In each case, scientists gather carefully data that demonstrate the need to protect habitat and ecosystems for threatened species but because these protections run counter to the interests of powerful economic and political interests, the scientists are threatened and often fired for sticking to their ethics. He describes how David Mattson, a research biologist on the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team had his files of data confiscated because his findings and conclusions interfered with the desire of the head of the team, Chirs Servheen, to delist the grizzly. Servheen’s concern was to appease the opponents of grizzlies (e.g., ranchers and hunters—the latter don’t like competition for game from animal predators) and state departments of “game” (which is the term used by many western states for their “natural resources” agencies.) There is a legitimate concern on the part of civil servants working to preserve species that failure to compromise with these powerful forces will result in bad outcomes. But, nevertheless, the spirit of using the “best available science” is an ethic that should weigh heavier than it does with Servheen and others who seek to appease developers-extractive industries-ranchers-hunters in these case studies. One of the points at dispute is time frame—biologists agree that the current population of grizzlies is large enough for them to survive for a century or so but for long term survival, a much larger population is needed than exists now but protecting habitat for such a large number conflicts with the establishment of campgrounds in grizzly habitat, logging of grizzly habitat, and developers. The case cites the failure of a former Wilderness Society official serving as top aide to Bruce Babbitt, George Frampton, in the Clinton Administration to come to the defense of Mattson and grizzlies. A second case discusses how David Ross, a herpetologist working for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) loses his job over trying to preserve frogs that his research showed were threatened. A powerful group formerly known as the “Cowboy Caucus” now named Western States Coalition forced the state agency to take action against Ross for threatening development and ranching interests. This coalition is made up of “4000 members most of them elected officials from the county commission level on up to legislators at the state level.” Congressional representatives such as Senator Hatch of Utah work closely with the coalition. Clinton and Babbitt wanted to appease Utah powers because of their outrage over the “Grand Escalante Monument” and did not list the frog. The final outcome was that Clinton’s Interior Dept. reached an agreement to set up an HCP (habitat conservation plan) to save the frog which they hailed as a model of compromise. But insider biologists viewed the HCP as a “load of crap” and were astounded that it had been quickly accepted by Babbitt. In my book, I discuss at length how HCPs have been at the heart of Clinton and Obama Administration strategies to preserve species by reaching compromises with conservative western states but the BIG UNANSWERED question is whether they will be implemented as promised. One of the points that Wilkinson makes in the book is the these states have been routinely cutting the budgets and staff of biologists and others who monitor endangered species—thus there will be no data available to identify poor or nonexistent implementation. In the Utah frog case, the governor and its DWR cut the positions of non-game biologists under the ruse of a budget cutback and then replaced them later with game biologists. Those who collected data that showed threats to species were officially warned not to speak of their concerns. Other case studies include that of Harold Wilshire. Soils geologist with U.S. Geological Survey who documented the harmful effects of Off Road Vehicles (ORVs) on endangered desert tortoises—findings which infuriated the powerful ORV industry. Although Democrats on natural resources committees in Congress pushed through a Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan in 1993 (before the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994), since then the budget for studying the status of the tortoise and other endangered species has been decimated leading a biologist to state that “politicians have EFFECTIVELY ELIMINATED the ability of scientists to track emerging threats to tortoises and have ensured that management decisions will be made in the DARKNESS OF UNCERTAINTY.” The book documents courage of these scientists to persist in presenting “truth to power” despite threats to their jobs but it also demonstrates unfortunately that the good guys wind up on the losing side in these battles against powerful lobbies—this is the case during the Clinton Administration—imagine what it is like during the Trump Administration. Wilkinson cites the strategies used by the lobbies to quash scientists such as (1) Make the scientist the issue—challenge their motives etc.; (2) Transfer the scientist to “bureaucratic Siberia;” (3) Make their professional life so miserable that they will quit; (4) make an example of them so no other scientist will dare to buck the system.
Unfortunately, the findings of Wilkinson’s book written in 1998, remain all the more pertinent now under Ryan Zinke’s Department of Interior. Today, the LA Times reports how Zinke has “used reassignments to push employees out of government” for the same reason: they take positions that disagree with extractive industries. See Evan Halper. Civil servants charge Trump is sidelining workers with expertise on climate change, environment http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-trump-civil-servants-201709-story.html
In short, despite the requirement by the ESA that the best available science be used to make decisions concerning threatened species, science often falls prey to powerful lobby-dominated politics. Imagine what happens when the Trump Administration and Congress amend the ESA so that there is no longer a requirement that science be used.
Why Hunters Dominate Congress and States & Why Ryan Zinke is Worst Secretary of the Interior Ever: The Wall Street Journal reports that Ryan Zinke signed an order to open “as many U.S. national monuments as possible” to hunting and target shooting. The strangest aspect to this is the argument that he uses to support this move: the number of sports hunters has declined to only 11.5 million or, in other words, they only constitute 3.5% of the U.S. population and their numbers and percentage have been consistently declining. For most groups, a steadily declining percentage would suggest that this group should have LESS POWER and INFLUENCE over public lands that are for the 97 percent WHO DO NOT HUNT. But, not for Zinke. He blames the decline on the closing of Federal lands to hunting. Of course, this argument is totally false—the major reason is that the U.S. has become urban and the primary fixation of younger people is on their smart phones—not on hunting animals. Nevertheless, Congress is now about to pass a “Sporstmen’s Heritage and Recreational Act” that will enable a number of things that the NRA and hunters will be gleeful about: (1) Buy armor piercing bullets; (2) Allow importation of polar bear carcasses; (3) Make it easier to use gun silencers because the loud guns used by hunters hurt the hunters’ ears. As I have documented in my Wildlife Politics book and in other blog posts, the dominance of the hunters is due to some basic characteristics of U.S. politics: (1) The intensity of a small group like hunters that cares about their special interest outweighs the preferences of a huge but less intense majority-and, indeed, the smaller the numbers and percentage of hunters become, the more paranoid and intense they become about maximizing their rights to kill whatever they want with whatever means (forget about ethical hunting and fair chase) and the rights of non-hunters to be safe from them; (2) Congressional and state institutions that set hunting policy are dominated by representatives, senators, and officials who are happy to toady this small minority due to their concern with their small but dedicated votes and the (increasingly smaller) revenues they pay for licenses; (3) This is a scary group with members who have threatened (and sometimes acted on it) with violence anyone who opposes their rights to do whatever they want; (4) This toadying is primarily done by Republicans but also by Democrats in states like North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Louisiana, and other states where slob hunters are numerous. Still, one would hope that the Secretary of the Interior would address his policy concerns to the vast majority of users of public lands but Ryan Zinke is the Anti-Teddy Roosevelt, a man who in his short term of office has consistently done everything possible to undermine the conservation and biodiversity goals of the Interior Department while toadying to extractive industries and hunters. If he remains in office for 4 years, the conservation and biodiversity goals of the Interior Department will terribly weakened. The only hope is that those who care about conservation and biodiversity can speak to their representatives, senators, and public officials in as intense a manner as the hunters. Check out the Wall Street Journal article on hunting on public lands at https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-administration-to-expand-hunting-at-national-monuments-1505488706
And Gail Collins of The New York Times describes the scariness of the so-called “Sportmen’s Act” (nothing sporting at all about it!): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/opinion/guns-silencers-congress.html?emc=edit_tnt_20170915&nlid=10365419&tntemail0=y
Coral Loss: Bad News versus Hope of Technological Solution. Research by Dr. Tara Clark reported (using new techniques to study historical changes in coral) that extensive bleaching oc coral reefs in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef had already occurred prior to the 2016 major bleaching occurrence. Moreover, she said that there was “little evidence of recovery even 60 years after the bleaching” at some of the sites. Her policy conclusions are that “robust management action to reduce human impacts on reefs, especially efforts to reduce sediment and nutrient delivery to reef waters, in order to buy time for the reefs to recover before the next major disturbance event.” Her announcement almost coincided with a report that another Australian professor, Peter Harrison, who has studied coral reproduction, has been able to “grow millions of coral larvae in tanks” and employ them to restore reef in “blast-damaged” Philippine areas. He says that the corals grew fast enough to “reproduce themselves after 3 years” and that he believes that the method can be “scaled” to be used on a large scale in contrast to the “coral gardening technique” currently used which is hard to scale and often unsuccessful. The juxtaposition of these two reports remind me of my concluding chapter in my Wildlife Politics book where I discuss the debate between “new” and traditional conservationists—the new conservationists view technology as able to solve environmental problems and thus are optimistic while traditional conservationists are skeptical of technological solutions, emphasizing more the preservation of more areas. The article on Tara Clark is at https://phys.org/news/2017-09-coral-loss-palm-islands-mass.html and the one on Harrison is available at: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/09/11/ivf-coral-could-be-game-changer-reef-health
Unethical hunting of bears and wolves supported by the State of Wisconsin. The WisconsinGazette.com published an article concerning hunting of wolves and bears in Wisconsin using baiting and dogs—two practices that surveys show the majority of hunters view as unethical because they fail the test of the “fair chase.” The article has photos and videos concerning these practices. But for me, the most interesting fact I learned is that a law termed the ““Right to Hunt Act,” which prohibits people from photographing, videotaping or recording hunters on public land” and which was supported by the NRA and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker.” The law is being contested in court by animal rights organizations. The article points out that many of these hunters themselves post videos of them posing gleefully with their kills. The article cites surveys of Wisconsin and elsewhere that shows the use of baiting and dogs in hunts are unpopular with the vast majority of the general public. But, as is the case in so many cases where hunters and predators are concerned, the small minority of unethical hunters and NRA prevail in the legislature. The article cites how the State of Wisconsin reimburses hunters, even those who are hunting illegally, for dogs lost to wolves during these hunts--$2500 per dog. Check out the article at: Clashes with wolves: Wisconsin wildlife is hounded with unbearable cruelty
Development versus Wildlife: The Case of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Todd Wilkinson has written an excellent article in the Mountain Journal titled “Unnatural Disaster: Will America’s Most Iconic Wild Ecosystem be lost to a Tidal Wave of People” concerning the growing population of humans in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with a particular focus on Bozeman, Montana. He cites studies that show that the Bozeman and Gallatin Valley area population, already 105,000 will double in 24 years with a 3 percent growth rate—and its actual growth rate is significantly higher. He cites the fact that development is a one-way street—once “concrete, asphalt, roads, traffic, noise pollution” take place, there is no going back—wildness is gone forever. He also cites data on Jackson Hole Wyoming concerning not only are huge homes with big footprints being built there but, because housing is too expensive, lower income people who service the wealthy live and commute in other areas, increasing the impact of development. He cites data that these huge homes average only 2.3 persons per dwelling, half the number 60 years ago, but the wealthy newcomers put their dwellings in “dream” spots on rivers which are biodiversity “hotspots” and often in the way of routes that wildlife travel. These homes footprints include new roads, driveways, “outbuildings,” dogs and other pets, infrastructure that disturbs the environment such as plumbing and electricity. The draw of seeing wildlife especially grizzlies and wolves brings more than 1 billion dollars to the GYE area but with growing costs. Thus the roads are “choked with summer traffic,” visits are setting records, and mountain biking and ATV use of forests and BLM is rapidly increasing with the result that wildlife have no refuge—they can no longer be remote from humans who will pursue them on ATVs and snowmobiles. Indeed, Wilkinson raises the question whether big environmental groups that criticize extractive industries are failing to “call out” the impacts of recreation and expensive homes because of the sensitivity of this issue to local economies and big donors to the organizations. What is the solution? Is there a solution? The only solution I see is for a significant portion of the population to follow Edward O. Wilson’s setting aside 50 percent of the Earth as “permanent preserve undisturbed by man.” I think that there is likelihood of an increasing portion of the population—the type of people who think about building a beautiful big home in the GYE—of eventually seeing that the wildness and wildlife they are hoping to enjoy are being destroyed by development. It may take disasters—something akin to the loss of the passenger pigeon—to bring the loss of wildness home to influential who can make a difference. But the big threat is that such a changing consciousness may only come after we have lost much of the ecosystem. Check out Todd Wilkinson’s article Unnatural Disaster: Will America’s Most Iconic Wild Ecosystem Be Lost To A Tidal Wave Of People? http://mountainjournal.org/the-wildest-ecosystem-in-america-faces-death-by-too-many-people and Edward O. Wilson’s idea of preserving half the Earth at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/01/science/e-o-wilson-half-earth-biodiversity.html?mcubz=3&_r=0
Economic Development, Tourism, Population Growth, War, and Protection of Wildlife such as Gorillas: The Complexity of Wildlife Conservation in Developing Countries.
Economic Development, Tourism, Population Growth, War, and Protection of Wildlife such as Gorillas: The Complexity of Wildlife Conservation in Developing Countries. An excellent article appeared in the Aug. 30th (2017) edition of the New York Times about the problems of trying to save the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It demonstrates how complex the interplay is between wildlife conservation on the one hand, and the constellation of forces affecting developing countries such as economic development, tourism, population growth, and war. The park has long been beset by wars—“insurgents” have “occupied” Virunga from 2004 to 2009. In 2011 some order was restored and a luxury lodge opened but then in 2012 “rebels” took over the area near gorilla country—the park’s major tourism attraction and the park was closed. It has reopened in 2014 but the situation remains precarious with “160 rangers” killed in the last decade including 3 in recent months. Virunga’s experience shows the necessity for peace and stability for tourism to flourish. However, the park suffers from more mundane threats of native populations exploiting its forests, cutting trees to make charcoal—a major “industry” that natives use to subsist. The Park’s director, Emannuel de Merode, has pushed for electricity to develop alternative means of income and subsistence for natives of the area and thanks to large philanthropic donations by Howard Buffet, the electrification project has succeeded in providing power to the area with the hope that the associated development will deter natives from exploiting the park’s forests that are necessary to support gorillas and other wildlife. Despite the violence, the park has the potential according to World Wildlife Fund calculations to support up to 45,000 jobs through tourism, hydropower, and other industries. Unfortunately, economic development also fosters population growth near parks that can “kill the goose that is supposed to lay the golden egg.” In my Wildlife Politics book, I cite evidence that suggests that “buffer zones” must be established to prevent this inevitable development from seriously harming wildlife in the protected areas. For a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo with weak central power and governing ability, protection of parks is likely beyond their capability and, if it is possible at all, will have to rely heavily on outside sources of aid from NGOs like WWF and philanthropists and other interested parties such as Western European countries that have supported other African countries wildlife preservation activities. Check out the article by Amy Yee. The Power Plants That May Save a Park, and Aid a Country https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/business/congo-power-plants-poaching.html?emc=edit_tnt_20170830&nlid=10365419&tntemail0=y&_r=0
Democratic Senators Against Wolves: Why the ESA is in Deep Trouble. As I discuss in my book Wildlife Politics, the Endangered Species Act was passed during the Nixon Administration due to the fact that Republicans and conservatives did not see it as a threat to their economic interests but that situation changed very soon afterwards with the snail darter case. Since then, conservatives and Republicans have targeted this “macho law” for defanging, allowing states to have control over decisions and (unlike the current ESA) allowing protections to be vetoed to economic costs. Now that Republicans control both the Presidency and Congress, they are moving several bills that will defang the ESA, allowing states and powerful economic interests to veto any conservation effort that threatens their interests. One would hope that Democrats, home to a large portion of the environmentalist community, would defend the ESA by doing everything in their power to resist what would be a disaster for biodiversity conservation including filibustering if necessary. However, when you study the voting record of Democratic Senators such as Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, you realize that support for the ESA and environment is weak—these two senators are far more afraid of hunter-ranchers than the environmental community. Both of them have joined with Republicans to “eliminate protections for Great Lakes states’ wolves” as well as preventing judicial review of the harmful effects of these measures for wolves. Hunters and ranchers are a significant voter group in both Minnesota and Wisconsin so it is not surprising that senators, Democrat or Republican, would pay attention to their demands. However, environmentalists in either of these states far outnumber hunters and ranchers in both states. However, the salience of the issue of wolves for hunters and ranchers is high while, up until now, the issue does not have the same priority for those who would defend the ESA and species like wolves. What can be done to raise environmental concerns to a higher priority? Environmental disasters? Imminent demise of a species like wolves? Public service ads by environmental groups? I have no easy answers to this question which is why I fear that the ESA is in deep danger. The underlying problem is that people who see themselves losing something such as cattle or right to hunt wherever they want feel more strongly than those who support a positive goal such as conservation. Let us be clear: a “defanged” ESA that allows economic interests to outweigh the threat to species is not a true “Endangered Species Act”—instead, it would be a return to the situation that existed before the passage of the ESA in 1973. Check out articles about the voting position concerning wolves of Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota at http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/opinion/4322061-statewide-view-wrongheaded-anti-wolf-legislation-threatens-wildlife-americans-rights#.Wa60Jq2JmfU.twitter and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin at http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/2017/02/15/falk-proposal-delist-wolves-will-lead-problems/97964298/
The Texas View of Endangered Species Act (ESA): Humans First and Foremost—it they harm industry and human wealth, kill them!
The Texas View of Endangered Species Act (ESA): Humans First and Foremost—it they harm industry and human wealth, kill them! The Texas Public Policy Foundation has released a report that demonstrates the view of Texas (and Western Republicans in general) of the Endangered Species Act. The Report indicts the ESA as harming humans and their private property and calls for a sweeping revision to the Act. The Report states that the Act should be aimed towards a “human-centered goal” in order to “stimulate the health and welfare of man.” It goes on to say that “the ESA disregards…the primacy of human welfare as the touchstone of genuine environmental protection” (p. 12). It criticizes the ESA for its reliance on the “best available science,” arguing that that this can be “superficial” because, for example, the species are so rare that “not much information is available on their biology or habitat.” Of course, the precautionary principle suggests that in such cases, humans should act cautiously to preserve species but The Texas Public Policy Foundation and its human first above all approach there is no room for such caution. The Report proudly states that in Texas, the overseer of Endangered Species Protection is not the State’s Parks and Wildlife Department but instead has been assigned to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts because they are going track how much it costs the state to enforce endangered species protection. The Report cites how the Texas House and Senate in 2013 tried to switch oversight of species protection to the Parks and Wildlife Department but Governor Perry wisely vetoed this legislation to their delight. How much does the Texas Comptroller know about science of wildlife protection? Little or nothing but the knowledge of the “best science available” is not a concern of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Western Republicans. The Report concludes by calling for Congress to rewrite ESA so that it puts human needs first. This Report, as ludicrous as it seems, unfortunately is exactly the type of thinking that Donald Trump, Ryan Zinke, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan love. This idiotic and upsetting report can be accessed at https://www.texaspolicy.com/library/doclib/2017-06-study-endangeredspeciessurvey-acee-mingram.pdf
During my research for the book, I noticed that there was no blog available for sharing informaton on wildlife conservation and thus I set up this blog to accomplish this purpose. Please share any informaticoncerning issues related to wildife policy and politics. I welcome feedback from users concerning this blog and website.