Is Fish & Wildlife under the thumb of political influence?

by Joshua Zaffos/High Country News | OCTOBER 9, 2015

73 percent of agency scientists say political interference is too high.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent announcement that the greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act was widely hailed as a conservation success. Federal officials, along with industry supporters and Western communities across the grouse’s 11-state range, claimed voluntary state and landowner actions were enough to protect the bird and avoid federal restrictions.

But another explanation lurks behind Fish and Wildlife’s decision for the grouse and other imperiled species that have dodged or received less protective ESA listings in recent years: Political interference and a lack of scientific integrity are influencing outcomes and hampering the agency’s work.

According to a new survey and report compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 73 percent of Fish and Wildlife scientists say political influence is too high at the agency and a relative majority believes their office is less effective than it was five years ago. Those alarming figures stand out at Fish and Wildlife, compared with other surveyed federal science agencies where staff generally feels scientific integrity is holding firm or on the rise.

Consideration of Political Interests at Agencies

Seventy-three percent of surveyed Fish and Wildlife Service scientists say political influence is too high at the agency. -Union of Concerned Scientists

During his first inauguration speech in 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to“restore science to its rightful place,” and later ordered agencies to draft scientific integrity policies for the first time ever. Those were welcome steps for researchers who felt politics trampled science-based management during the George W. Bush administration. But the implementation and effectiveness of those policies remain fuzzy.

According to the survey, many government scientists remain unaware of their agencies’ policies or what they mean, says Gretchen Goldman, the report’s lead author. For example, the policies should enable agency researchers to publish their own peer-reviewed research and to review agency documents that use their studies and names before they are released, but many respondents admitted they were unfamiliar with those protections, Goldman says. Still, compared with surveys conducted during the Bush administration, scientists at the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say agency effectiveness is increasing.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service is another story. In addition to scientists’ overwhelming indictment of political influence at the agency, many identified a lack of staff capacity and resources to complete their jobs. Further, more than half of surveyed Fish and Wildlife researchers said the agency only occasionally or seldom collects sufficient scientific and monitoring data to do its work; a much greater proportion than respondents from other agencies. “That jumped out to me,” Goldman says. “The second you don’t have the ability to use the science, you get more vulnerable to political interference.”

Collection of Needed Scientific Monitoring Information

A majority of Fish and Wildlife scientists say their agency only occasionaly or seldom collects enough monitoring data to fulfill its mission. -Union of Concerned Scientists

Comments shared through the surveys also indicated concerns over “accommodations to the states,” Goldman adds, which potentially diminishes science-based outcomes since states may be more interested in avoiding federal restrictions than doing what’s best for species, such as the grouse.

Allegations of heavy-handed political influence aren’t new, and whistleblower cases have previously exposed questionable decisions. For instance, a whistleblower retaliation case in Texas, settled last fall, documented how a Fish and Wildlife scientist was transferred and basically forced into early retirement after he argued politics and scientific misconduct factored into a non-listing for the dunes sagebrush lizard, whose habitat overlaps with the oil-rich Permian Basin.

Yet there are some signs of progress. Compared with surveys of Fish and Wildlife’s Ecological Services staff during the Bush years, twice as many employees say morale is now good or excellent, and more feel they are now allowed to speak with the media and public about their work.

Somewhat ironically, Fish and Wildlife declined to make an official available for interview and instead issued a statement via email: “The Service is fully committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity, and welcomes the findings from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ survey. We will carefully review the information in the survey and continue our commitment to ensure broad awareness, understanding, and implementation of the Department of the Interior’s Science Integrity Policy.”

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN contributing editor. Follow him @jzaffos.