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.
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.