For Immediate Release: Jul 15, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Study Dissects How Politics Skewed Science to Jeopardize Wolf Survival
Washington, DC — A new peer-reviewed study shows how two recovery plans for the endangered Mexican wolf that were both supposed to be based on the best available biological data came to sharply different conclusions due to political manipulation. This study has major implications both for the Endangered Species Act and for federal scientific integrity, in general. It also raises doubts about the ability of executive agencies to police themselves and argues for legislative solutions, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The study, entitled “Biological and Sociopolitical Sources of Uncertainty in Population Viability Analysis for Endangered Species Planning” appears in the latest edition of the journal Scientific Reports from Nature Publishing Group. It dissects how the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) skewed terms, changed recovery panel membership, and used other tactics to produce a recovery plan for the highly endangered Mexican wolf that the agency deemed “politically acceptable.”
In its latest (2017) recovery plan, FWS refused to adopt a “quantitative mortality criterion” that would curb limit human-caused mortality, even though that is the overwhelming cause of losses. The agency also slanted factors such as lack of genetic diversity, low reproduction rates, and skimpy reintroduction numbers to produce a much smaller target metapopulation for recovery, a total of 320 wolves in the wild versus 750 recommended by a 2013 recovery team.
“This study describes how officials repeatedly put their thumbs on the scientific scales to reach a desired result,” stated PEER Pacific Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Mexican wolf is the continent’s most endangered large mammal with only 131 left in the U.S. wild. “Unfortunately, the culture of ‘alternative facts’ has now captured even federal science agencies.”
The study recommends several steps to prevent such abuses, such as consistent standards for establishing quantitative risk thresholds for species facing extinction, rules governing qualifications of persons placed on recovery panels, and reliance on external peer review. In 2017, FWS simply ignored concerns raised by peer reviewers.
Another key recommendation is strengthening federal scientific integrity policies, inaugurated under President Obama but which have become dead letters during Trump’s tenure.
“Federal scientific integrity policies are themselves facing functional extinction,” added Ruch, pointing to proposed legislation that would independently protect both research transparency and protect scientist from reprisal. “Congress cannot depend upon executive branch agencies, particularly under this administration, to police their own scientific products. We need new legislation that will deter scientific fraud and is enforceable in court.”