UPDATE: Interior halts selection of scientists for peer review of wolf delisting proposal

An update from Greenwire:

 

Interior halts selection of scientists for peer review of wolf delisting proposal

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Published: Monday, August 12, 2013

The Interior Department is putting the brakes on a scientific peer review of its proposal to remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves after discovering it had improper knowledge of the scientists who would be participating in the review.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was able to deduce which scientists its contractor AMEC was proposing to review the delisting proposal, a fact that runs afoul of the agency’s peer review standards, an FWS spokesman said.

The peer review selection process has been put on hold pending further review, said the spokesman, Gavin Shire.

“We’ve decided that [it] doesn’t meet the standard for independent peer review selections,” he said.

The decision is likely to come as a relief to wolf advocates who had criticized the agency for suggesting that AMEC exclude from the peer review three scientists who had signed a May 21 letter raising scientific objections to a leaked wolf delisting proposal (Greenwire, Aug. 8).

Today, one of those three scientists said the agency was wrong to recommend he be excluded from the peer review team.

John Vucetich, a professor at Michigan Technological University who has conducted extensive research on wolves at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, said his past criticism of the agency’s delisting proposal should not disqualify him from the peer review team.

Vucetich, Roland Kays of North Carolina State University and Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, were among 16 scientists who signed the letter. AMEC proposed that all three be included in the peer review.

But Fish and Wildlife in a recent email to the firm — which had been selected to lead the peer review — said signatories to that letter would not be appropriate for the peer review, though it is not entirely clear why. The agency has not provided a copy of that email.

“Everyone who signed that letter was qualified and knowledgeable,” Vucetich said in an interview with E&ENews PM today. “People should be more concerned with the qualifications of a person rather than their final judgment.”

The opinions expressed in the May 21 letter are exactly what’s expected of peer reviewers, Vucetich added.

“If you pass judgment but don’t offer any reasons or if you pass judgment and simply aren’t qualified to, that’s inappropriate,” he said in a separate interview with the California Wolf Center that was posted to YouTube. “I and several others passed judgment, but we passed judgment after becoming familiar with the materials and based on our qualified knowledge of the topic. I don’t think that’s advocacy.”

Vucetich said FWS easily knew that he was among the scientists AMEC was proposing to take part in the review.

The firm had submitted the resumes of the scientists it was proposing for the review with the names removed. However, any reasonable observer could have identified Vucetich’s resume given that his name is cited about 100 times in the resume for the publications he has helped author, Vucetich said.

Wayne’s resume would have also been readily apparent, Vucetich said.

“It’s simply a lie,” he said, to suggest the agency didn’t know who was on the peer review list.

Vucetich was also picked to participate in the peer review by Atkins Global, another environmental consulting firm, which bid for the FWS contract but lost.

The agency’s handling of the peer review last week drew complaints from critics who argued it was trying to stifle scientific dissent.

“It seems like reviewers are being cherry-picked,” said Dan Thornhill, a scientist for Defenders of Wildlife who holds a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Georgia and has been involved in peer reviews for more than 15 years. “It’s not like a jury. You really want things to be vetted by the best and brightest scientists.”

Defenders and other environmental groups have opposed the delisting proposal, arguing that wolves should be allowed to occupy more of their former habitat in the southern Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast.

Vucetich said the Endangered Species Act suggests that to be recovered, a species has to be “somewhat well distributed throughout its former range.” Currently, wolves occupy about 15 percent of their former range, he said.

The FWS solicitation for the peer review sought experts with backgrounds in wolf ecology who are sufficiently independent from FWS and who have not been engaged in advocacy.

“Peer reviewers will be advised that they are not to provide advice on policy,” the FWS solicitation stated. “Rather, they should focus their review on identifying and characterizing scientific uncertainties.”

FWS said it did not order the removal of any particular scientists from the peer review panel, though it did send an email to AMEC raising concerns over whether the signatories to the letter would be sufficiently independent and objective.

“Objective and credible peer review is critical to the success of threatened and endangered species recovery and delisting efforts,” agency spokesman Chris Tollefson said last week. “For this reason, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes every step possible to work with our independent peer review contractors to ensure that selected scientific experts have not prejudged the proposals they will review.”

The FWS delisting decision was hailed by Western states, livestock groups and hunters who agreed with the agency that wolves are no longer in danger of extinction after being nearly eradicated from the lower 48 states (Greenwire, June 7).

More than 6,000 wolves roam the western Great Lakes states and Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, up from nearly zero when they were listed in the 1970s.

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