From Greenwire today:
Interior excludes scientists critical of wolf delisting from peer review
Published: Thursday, August 8, 2013
The move drew fire from environmentalists who argued the scientists are among the country’s leading wolf experts and were being purged from the review to stifle dissent.
Environmental groups have opposed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s June proposal to delist wolves in all of the lower 48 states except parts of Arizona and New Mexico, where protections for Mexican wolves would be expanded.
The scientists excluded from the peer review are Roland Kays of North Carolina State University, John Vucetich of Michigan Technological University and Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles.
They were among 16 scientists who signed the May 21 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell arguing that the delisting rule flouts “the fundamental purpose of the Endangered Species Act to conserve endangered species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.”
“The gray wolf has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains,” the scientists wrote. “The Service’s draft rule fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast.”
Those three scientists were selected to review the decision by the international engineering and project management company AMEC, which had won a contract from FWS to lead the independent peer review.
But in an email to the scientists yesterday, AMEC’s Melissa Greulich said FWS requested their removal, citing their involvement in the May 21 letter.
“I apologize for telling you that you were on the project and then having to give you this news,” she said in the email obtained by Greenwire. “I understand how frustrating it must be, but we have to go with what the service wants. I assure you that the rest of our panelists do not lean towards the other side, and we hope they make a reasonable, unbiased decision.”
Greulich did not immediately respond to a request for comment this morning.
In response, FWS said it did not order the removal of any particular scientists from the peer review panel, though it did send a letter to AMEC raising concerns over whether the signatories to the letter would be sufficiently independent and objective. The same concerns would have been raised if the scientists’ letter supported the delisting proposal, FWS said.
The ultimate decision to exclude Kays, Vucetich and Wayne from the review was AMEC’s, the agency said.
“Objective and credible peer review is critical to the success of threatened and endangered species recovery and delisting efforts,” said agency spokesman Chris Tollefson. “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 agency said the scientists’ letter itself constitutes a form of advocacy. But the agency said it had not seen the list of AMEC’s peer reviewers and won’t know those names until the review is completed in September.
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.”
But the scientists’ removal added fodder for the agency’s critics.
It comes as the agency faces scrutiny on Capitol Hill over revelations that FWS supervisors retaliated against three whistle-blowers who had exposed violations of the agency’s scientific integrity policy (Greenwire, Aug. 2).
“This is the first time I’ve encountered anything like this in my career,” 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.
Thornhill said that the scientists’ letter hardly constitutes advocacy work and that taking a position on an issue does not indicate a conflict of interest.
“It seems like reviewers are being cherry-picked,” he said. “It’s not like a jury. You really want things to be vetted by the best and brightest scientists.”
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said Fish and Wildlife’s decision could leave the panel with only experts who have never spoken publicly about wolves, either because they support the delisting or fear compromising their ability to win federal contracts.
By hand-picking the peer reviewers — or at least implying which scientists should not be on the panel — FWS is compromising the review’s independence, he said.
“For an issue of this magnitude, this is a sleazy way to run a peer review,” he said, adding that it could lead to additional litigation.
Ruch added that the FWS decision appears to flout the White House Office of Management and Budget’s guidance that says peer review panels should include experts with a range of viewpoints who are independent from the agency.
“Inviting reviewers with competing views on the science may lead to a sharper, more focused peer review,” the OMB guidance states.
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.
But some environmental groups argue that wolves have yet to return to most of their historical range and that protections should remain so the animals can recolonize suitable habitat in the southern Rockies, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast.
Fish and Wildlife has ordered the peer reviews to be completed by Sept. 11, the same date by which public comments are due.