Federal Wildlife Agent Whistleblower Reinstated for Appeal
Judge Finds “Substantial Likelihood” Whistleblower Will Prevail in His Complaint
Washington, DC — A federal wildlife agent has been ordered back to work following his complaint that he had been fired for blowing the whistle on illegal cougar kills and other misconduct in the Wildlife Services program in Nevada, according to a ruling released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Significantly, the back-to-work order from a judge of the U.S. Merit Systems Board (MSPB) was premised on a finding of “a substantial likelihood that the appellant [whistleblower] will prevail on the merits of the appeal”.
The whistleblower complaint was filed last month by Gary Strader, a professional hunter for U.S. Wildlife Services, contending that he had been abruptly discharged for reporting that his colleagues had illegally used government airplanes to hunt mountain lions in violation of both federal and state law. Strader works as a hunter and tracker, principally of coyotes, out of the agency’s Ely, Nevada office. Wildlife Services is an office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The June 24, 2009 ruling by MSPB Administrative Judge Craig Berg concluded that—
- Strader’s disclosures of wildlife violations were protected from retaliation under the Whistleblower Protection Act;
- There was convincing evidence that Strader was illegally fired in connection with his protected whistleblowing; and
- Wildlife Services had “not provided any evidence to corroborate [its] claim that a lack of funds was the reason it terminated” Strader.
The ruling orders that Strader be temporarily re-instated while the matter is litigated and until the MSPB judge renders a decision on his appeal, a process that could take several months. Wildlife Services did not contest this stay order nor has it filed a substantive response to Strader’s complaint.
“This is welcome news for Gary, who will be getting a paycheck while he fights to be permanently restored,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson, who is assisting Salt Lake City attorney April Hollingsworth in the case. “Wildlife Services now bears the burden of proof to show that it had completely independent and legitimate grounds for taking this action.”
The case will come to hearing this summer unless new appointees of the Obama administration within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency for Wildlife Services, decide to rescind Strader’s separation or otherwise settle the matter. How these new officials proceed in this case may provide clues on how whistleblowers that arise on President Obama’s watch will be treated.