Study: Fish and Wildlife Service Routinely Ignored Scientific Experts

The following was just released by the Center for Biological Diversity:

A new study in the international journal Bioscience finds that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service routinely ignored scientific peer review when designating protected critical habitat for endangered species. According to the study published this month, the agency ignored recommendations by scientific experts to add areas to critical habitat to ensure the survival and recovery of endangered species 92 percent of the time.

“Our study shows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completely failed to rely on the best available science when deciding which habitat to protect for some of America’s most endangered species,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the peer-reviewed study. “This isn’t some meaningless bureaucratic oversight. Ignoring scientists’ advice jeopardizes the survival and recovery of endangered species.”

The designation of critical habitat is a key step in protecting the most important areas used by endangered species. Species with protected critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as those without it. As part of making a designation, the Fish and Wildlife Service must have experts outside the agency review the proposed designation to make sure it’s scientifically sound and suitable to help species survive and recover.

Using data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the study reviewed 169 peer reviews of 42 critical habitat designations for 336 species covering a five-year period (2002-2007). Of the 169 reviews, 85 recommended adding areas and 19 recommended subtracting areas. In response, the agency added areas in only four cases and subtracted areas in only nine cases. After peer review, 81 percent (34) of the 42 critical habitat designations were reduced by an average of 43 percent.

“Routinely, the agency dismisses scientific advice on the grounds that they need ‘flexibility’ to better serve endangered species,” said Stuart Pimm, chair of conservation at Duke University and one of the study’s authors. “There is absolutely no evidence that, in consistently denying threatened species their needed habitats, any species has benefitted.”

In addition to examining the peer reviews, the study presented case studies examining the process for designating critical habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher and Cape Sable seaside sparrow. In the case of the flycatcher, the peer reviewers faulted the proposed designation for failing to include areas recommended by a scientific recovery plan. Rather than add additional areas, however, the agency cut the designation by 53 percent at the behest of a former political appointee at the Department of the Interior. In the case of the sparrow, the agency cut an area from critical habitat against the advice of peer reviewers (one of whom described the area as “extremely important”) based on the false premise that designation of critical habitat would conflict with Everglades restoration.

“Science, not politics, ought to drive which habitat is protected for endangered species,” said Greenwald. “Obtaining peer review shouldn’t simply be about checking off a box on a form. Saving species means saving the places they live and, when it comes to that, our best scientists need to be listened to.”

The study is the first to systematically examine a government agency’s response to peer review of its decisions. Peer review of government decisions is fundamentally different from peer review of scientific studies in that there is no editor to determine whether peer review has been properly considered or, if appropriate, followed. To rectify this situation, the study recommends appointing an arbiter to oversee the government’s response to peer review and giving agency scientists more independence to ensure closer adherence to scientific information.

9 thoughts on “Study: Fish and Wildlife Service Routinely Ignored Scientific Experts”

  1. How do we ensure that the peers “rely on the best available science when deciding which habitat to protect for some of America’s most endangered species.”??? How do we know that the peers are even aware of all the complexity of issues that needs to be site-specifically considered? Sure, it is easy to pick “peers” from Ivy League schools, who haven’t a clue as to what the basal area and species composition should be on the east side of the Deschutes National Forest.

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    • The decision designating a species’ critical habitat is a different one from how critical habitat is managed.

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  2. To anyone doubting that the terms “best available science” and “peer review” have become twisted in recent years to best serve the environmental industry, I recommend this article. What a pile of biased, politicized Bachelor of Science! Larry is right — there’s a reason so many of these “peers” choose to remain anonymous.

    It is becoming ever more apparent that “critical habitat” is an artificial concept developed by individual bipeds whose careers (“survival”) depend upon it, and little or nothing to do with preserving the populations of targeted plants and animals.

    How much “critical habitat” has been burned up in this year’s wildfires? In the last ten years? How has this impacted the populations of targeted plants and animals associated with those areas? These are the types of questions that need a scientific approach to reasonably consider; until then, a biased literature review such as this has no real value or meaning. Just one more cry to save the planet by stopping logging and road building and letting wildfires run free so “nature” can get things fixed. Or something like that.

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  3. “The Interior’s inspector general documented several examples in which interference by political appointees resulted in reductions of critical habitat against the advice of agency scientists ”

    This confirms what has been widely known, raised repeatedly on NCFP, and independently observed for a long time — that much of our regulatory agency failures are the result of the captured status of our regulatory and management functions of government. This post provides yet another confirmation of it’s truth.

    When politics trump science in natural resource matters, we can only expect agency/governmental/regulatory failures.

    The curious aspect of these NCFP discussions is how many times the agency excuse is made by commenters, that the law is at fault, the citizens demanding the laws be followed are at fault, but not the agency, (alternating with the prohibitive costs of implementing the law). This latter argument of course, would not be an issue if the laws were followed in the first place. Lacking personal accountability for failure to follow these laws is also a driving force behind this recurring dynamic.

    I would have a lot more faith in the value of this forum were there some mutual recognition on both ends of the discussion, (rather than refusal to accept), so many of these inescapable truths.

    Let’s face it: we are in the midst of massive governmental systemic failure which can be directly attributed to corporate control of elections, government, trade policy,energy policy, news media, financial sectors, banking industry, etc., etc. Our National predicament is shared by a majority of other nations on the planet, and the imposed neoliberal macroeconomic policies are at the center of these crises. I recall in a recent comment by Sharon she assured a fellow commenter that there were “no neoliberals here”. That, however was not the commenter’s point, and an important opportunity to declare common ground was missed.

    All these other issues being discussed here and elsewhere are merely symptoms, effects, and inevitabilities of the pervading corporatism and their applied neoliberal macroeconomic policy which has terminally infected America, most of Europe, and elsewhere.

    Our time would be much better spent recognizing we are united by a common predicament (as corporate prey in a tried and failed economic predicament) and taking actions which address causality rather than discuss and dissemble over origins of the effects of that causal condition, manifested as recurring problems here.

    Amending our Constitution to define and limit “personhood” to actual people would be a wonderful place to start.

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  4. David.. it’s good to hear from you.

    First of all, let’s note that the piece is in Forum not the regular papers in the journal.

    Here’s what the journal says about this. “Forum essays address topical issues.
    Articles in the preceding categories, whether invited or
    independently submitted, undergo peer review of their content and
    writing style; they should provide new data or build on published
    findings.”

    Now, the study that was done was not biological, rather it is a study in “science policy studies.” Bioscience is a biological journal. I would be interested in seeing who peer-reviewed the piece and if they actually looked at the case studies.

    More of a problem, though, is the idea that there is such a thing as “what scientists say should go in public policy.” If this were actually a public policy journal, the concept probably wouldn’t have been publishable. “Science” is actually a human endeavor rife with human relational issues and the idea that science should direct as opposed to inform policy is one that only pops up in the minds of scientists (and for some reason, in certain NGOs, about certain scientific views).

    If you want to make regulatory calls, work on a campaign or run for office. If you want to provide information, be a scientist. That’s how our democracy, not technocracy, currently works.

    The idea that scientists would a) “know” or b) agree with each other on, how many acres and how they should be managed to protect species is difficult to accept. It could have happened this one time.. but there are difference in background, experience, personalities that make discussions fruitful and interesting.

    Finally, I wonder if AIBS would publish an opinion piece from the chair of an energy company, or they might think it would appear that the authors might have conflict of interest or be otherwise biased, or appear so?

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  5. What might be more interesting and valuable is how many changes in plans were made due to the considerations of peers’ works. I’m quite sure that information wasn’t “ignored”, but used, along with all the other collected data, to arrive at better outcomes. Sometimes, short term impacts have to be endured, to achieve long term ecological benefits. If peers also “ignore” the dangers of poor forest health and catastrophic wildfires, then their “advice” is suspect.

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  6. “What a pile of biased, politicized Bachelor of Science.”

    What a great way to make a point, that those without a Phd following their name are just not smart enough or worthy enough to peer-review or critique an issue. Since I only have a BS degree, I guess I should shut up, read and study the “masters”, and accept only their words as true science. Fat chance.

    The real point has been totally lost. That is, that the USFWS has been politicized for years, and it is a major event when a decision regarding endangered species coming from their DC office is true, clean, well-researched, peer-reviewed science. Just like the USFS has since Reagan, the agency is underfunded, understaffed and dominated by political hacks in DC who answer to corporations and big-money pressure groups. B oth USFS and USFWS have good, honest scientists at the field level who would like to make and implement the correct decisions on the ground, but are hamstrung by their puppet-masters.

    Again, this thread has nothing to do with forest restoration or fire management. Those of you who take each and every entry or topic here and interject “restoration or fire management” need to take a cold shower and cool it. Our national heat wave seems to have done more than create fire-storms. Reading the same shop-worm, angry diatribes about “thinning” and 10000 years of native American burning efforts has become boring. And I don’t like to be bored. So learn and play some different tunes, please.

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    • Ed: It was a JOKE. “PhD” stands for “Piled Higher and Deeper.” BS is BS. Too, it was a comment on the quality of the “science” being promoted — sophomoric, to be polite. It’s a political piece using specific studies to arrive at a foregone conclusion. The reason for the “joke” was so I didn’t have to write Bull Manure, or its variant, which might sound even more “angry.”

      Not sure why you’re bored with 10,000 years of human, forest, and wildfire history, but I find it a fascinating — and highly relevant — topic, and have for decades. Not sure I’m willing (or even slightly interested) in playing “different tunes” for a non-paying bored reader. What is the incentive? Better just to avoid my future posts if you don’t want to be bored. They will be about wildfires and Indian burning and forest restoration. Guaranteed,

      (And why do you think that ESA and critical habitat issues have “nothing to do with forest restoration or fire management?” This blog is specific to forest planning on federal lands. How are you not making that connection?)

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  7. Sharon,
    Thanks for providing an explanation which fits precisely within my description of how the arguments raised here avoid the central point of the problem.

    After all, ESA is the legislative firewall to limit agency destruction of habitats essential to the survival of species. Parsing, rationalizing and second-guessing the applied tactics of subversion of ESA is dissembling the actual issue:
     That being the captured status of the DOI whereby political appointees intervene, and subvert, the process established by ESA. 

    In my view, the law is what needs to be defended, not the political machinations which subvert it.

    Your response falls within the pattern of defending captured agencies practicing internal monkey wrenching, which is well established throughout government and is replicated in agency resistance to applying the recommendations of climate science consensus. This is a example of how necessary changes to suicidal practices of business as usual get subverted, and how politics ultimately condemn future generations of  all life on the planet to either extinction or forced to adapt to climate hell.

    This is quite peculiar as your own state and many others are getting a taste of that climate hell.

    But as you’ve invoked in the past, No worries! Species come and species go. The most important thing is protection of BAU — species-be-damned, ESA is the problem — jobs, money and commodities are all that matter. 

    I couldn’t agree less.

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