Fish & Wildlife Service Acquits Itself on Mexican Wolf Science

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Fish & Wildlife Service Acquits Itself on Mexican Wolf Science

Cursory Findings by FWS Official Prompt Calls for Independent Scientific Review

Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) denies engaging in scientific misconduct while determining what is needed to recover the highly endangered Mexican wolf.  This denial came in response to a formal complaint from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which challenged the cogency and accuracy of findings by an agency official rejecting its charges and renewed calls for independent reviews of complaints involving political manipulation of science.

Today fewer than 60 Mexican wolves remain in the wild. Conceding failure after years of recovery efforts, FWS began a new recovery process in 2010.  In a complaint filed this June under new Department of Interior scientific integrity rules, PEER detailed how the scientists assembled for this new process were pressured to water down and alter findings.

Instead of bringing in outside reviewers as it has for other complaints, Interior asked FWS to review itself. The investigation was tasked to an FWS career official, Richard Coleman.  In his five-page “reply letter” dated September 25th, Coleman dismissed all the complaint specifications.  PEER counters that his findings, supported by no citation or scientific research, suffer from three central defects:

  • Coleman found “it is not reckless for the [FWS Southwest] Regional Director to request [scientific changes], since the Regional Director is ultimately responsible for the recovery of the Mexican wolf.”   Simply because the Regional Director has final authority does not legitimize ignoring the best available science.  The whole point of the scientific integrity rules is to stop officials with final authority from  pressuring scientists to alter or suppress results, as was done here;
  • Coleman repeatedly states that because no final FWS decision has been made on the recovery plan, a violation of the integrity policy is not possible (e.g., “Speculation about the conclusion of this upcoming…finding is not a valid basis for scientific misconduct”).  This is another fundamental misreading of the Interior integrity policy which explicitly forbids political interference at any stage of the decision-making process; and
  • His finding incorrectly concludes that “your allegation also assumed that the best available scientific information would indicate that recovery of the Mexican wolf (Southwest wolf) should include areas in Colorado and Utah.”  The need for recovery areas in Colorado and Utah was indeed the conclusion reached by the specially convened Science and Planning Subgroup of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Team based on best available scientific information – which then resulted in the FWS decision to cancel the recovery team meeting, facts Coleman managed to overlook.

“This official self-vindication by the Fish & Wildlife Service is an embarrassment.  This response employs standards and methods that make Interior’s vaunted scientific integrity policies an utter joke,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Bureau of Reclamation Scientific Integrity Officer was abruptly removed after elevating scientific integrity concerns.  “This exercise should stand as Exhibit A for subjecting complaints of political manipulation of science to outside scrutiny rather than having officials investigate their own chains of command.”

Despite protesting that any conclusion about the process is premature, the FWS is slated to announce its decision regarding Mexican wolves later this week (“by September 30, 2012” according to Coleman).  If the upcoming decision does not reflect the best available science, FWS will likely be sued under the Endangered Species Act.

“This complaint was a chance for the agency to come clean and do the right thing,” added Ruch.  “Instead, the Fish & Wildlife Service – and many of these same officials – will cling to the same pattern exhibited during the Bush years of denying the obvious until slapped into reality with a court order.  Meanwhile, the Mexican wolf may be litigated to extinction.”

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