Conservation Biologists Urged to Get More Political

Thanks to a Montanan who sent this link to a Missoulian article entitled “Conservation biologists must take message to politicians, experts say at UM.”

The weeklong gathering has brought scientists, policymakers and journalists from around the world to the University of Montana. While much of the gathering is focused on the latest scientific discipline discoveries, this year’s agenda also features many discussions about getting more science to the general public.

Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, argued that even different political camps can end up following the same policy aims. He said that while the George W. Bush administration caught fire for recommending logging and thinning in spotted owl habitat with little evidence that would help the bird, the Obama administration has pursued a very similar policy.

“The thinning goes forward even though the science says, ‘Wait a minute,’ ” DellaSala said. “With the precautionary principle, the agency has the burden of proof to demonstrate it’s not harmful.”

Based on these quotes, the folks there seem to be pretty sloppy about what is “science.” For example, the precautionary principle is not science, it’s an idea or value. I don’t believe that particular idea is enshrined in law but others can help with that.

Here are some more:

But that’s going to take a higher level of commitment and organization than most scientists are willing to assume, said David Johns, a professor of politics and law at Portland State University and co-founder of the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative.

“Conservationists have abandoned grassroots organizing,” Johns said. “It’s mostly check-writers supporting professional staff. But when you’re only playing the inside game, you can’t match the resources of our opponents.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said managing people is much harder than managing wildlife, especially where science is involved. When people “stack facts based on beliefs,” to make political decisions, it becomes extremely hard for scientific evidence to persuade someone to change an opinion.

Ah.. it sounds like conservation “ists” and “biologists” are the same folks.. but “science” is supposed to be objective (or not..). Even Director Ashe as quoted seems to believe that “science” should drive political decisions.

The curious thing about this is that everyone knows that scientists in the real world do have different values and do disagree about things.. in fact, science is supposed to be open and transparent. Plus our government if supposed to be “of the people” not “of the scientists.”

And politicians get that .. that’s why you see scientists of all persuasions testifying at hearings.

28 thoughts on “Conservation Biologists Urged to Get More Political”

  1. The Precautionary Principle isn’t science, it’s common sense and it is ignored by the decision makers. I refer to the findings of the revised trapper project. Precaution was cast to the breeze in favor of a contract commitment.

    • Hmm. if it’s common sense , then why don’t we use it with other policy issues, like say, legalizing marijuana (you would have to prove there are no health or environmental risks), or, dare I say, warfare? Or how about energy or food, where all the options have some risk to the environment and health? And personal choices like summer travel.. drinking beer, growing roses, and so on.

      • What about using the PP in assessing the risks of NOT taking action — risks not only to the environment, but to people and property? Say, the risk of not doing fuels work. Why not see fuels work as precautionary, since not doing the fuels work could result in a more intense and destructive fire, should one start?

  2. I would also remind people that the Precautionary Principle is a double-edge sword that needs to cut both ways. It is very clear that many preservationists have abandoned that concept in favor of conservation and more active management. Some might call those folks “heretics”, splintering off to oppose the “whatever happens” mindset. Indeed, preservationism relies on faith, and a faith that has impaired vision.

  3. If we all adhered to the “first do no harm” we’d still be wearing beargrass pants. If any pants at all.
    This doesn’t surprise me given SCB was created specifically as a means of legitimizing an ideological view of the world in the political arena by creation of a new branch of SINO. Science in name only — self-referential peer reviews by campfire buddies, et cetera ad nauseam. And to see Dominick right up there — I can hear Gomer Pyle right now.

  4. I’ve been curious about the “precautionary principle” after I heard it tossed about during the development of the 2012 planning rule, so this gave me an excuse to look into it a bit. (Interesting that I saw it referred to as both ‘common sense’ and ‘a double-edged sword.’)

    Here is the book answer in this country: “In U.S the precautionary principle is not expressly mentioned in any laws or policies. Despite U.S. acceptance of the precautionary principle in international treaties and other statements, little work has been done to implement this principle.” (

    There seems to be an assumption by some that it’s in the Endangered Species Act somewhere. Even though the law itself is precautionary, in the sense that it seeks to head off extinction, the law only requires agencies to “use the best scientific and commercial data available” in listing species, designating critical habitat and determining effects of proposed actions during the consultation process. The precautionary principle is one way to “use” that data. (Same for the Planning Rule requirement to “use the best available scientific information to inform the planning process.”)

    “How” an agency uses the data depends on its view of uncertainty and risk. An agency is only limited by the requirement that it use the data in a manner that is not arbitrary or capricious in making its decision.

    Sharon: I don’t know what is meant by your phrase “drive political decisions.” I think it is legitimate (and legally required) to use science to “inform” decisions. I’m not sure what Ashe meant by “persuade,” but if the result is changing someone’s opinion about the results of an action, science has done its job. I don’t think it is the job of SCIENCE to change someone’s decision about taking the action (even though that may be the result of informing the decision). That said, there are plenty of SCIENTISTS who are advocates, but ideally that should not detract from otherwise good science.

    • Jon, in the softer sciences especially, there are way too many practitioners willing to impose their values upon their science. Therefore, as Robert Buckman put it to me, the science loses its value — especially in cases where society paid for value.

  5. Like beauty, common sense and what is precautionary is in the eye / mind of the beholder.

    In regards to the precautionary principle being a reason for the EPA, I would contend that it all depends on the viewpoint of the individual and whether or not the individual’s viewpoint is informed by established science or simply driven by emotion or an incomplete understanding of the ramifications of alternatives. Ok, don’t retch, but when Precautionary focuses on a single minor species without considering the Precautionary concerns about the long term sustainable impact on the ecosystem that it depends on – Precautionary isn’t Precautionary. At best it is simply misinformed meddling.

    • I assume that is ESA rather than EPA. A couple of other points about the law that need to be understood. For ESA decisions the viewpoint has to based on the best available science, and a decision based on emotion or failure to understand that science would be illegal. Also, the first listed purpose of ESA is “to provide the means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species may be conserved.” The characterization of a listed species as ‘minor’ sounds like it’s based on emotion or an incomplete understanding of the ecosystem.

      • Then, how come the ESA doesn’t use the best available science to deal with the realities of catastrophic wildfires destroying irreplaceable nesting habitats? THAT is what confounds me, and there is no avenue to take those facts into court. BOTH the wildlife folks AND the eco-activists cleverly avoid addressing THOSE issues, instead, pretending that firestorms have insignificant effects on landscapes and species. Fiddling while Rome burns?!?

        • LarryH

          It is kind of funny isn’t it when the greatest cause of habitat loss is wildfire. But, nah, foresters couldn’t have known what they were talking about when they pointed out the dangers of the NSO recovery act in terms of its potential for destroying the NSO habitat.

          • Goshawks and spotted owls are being gleefully escorted into oblivion by the ESA. I’m not really sure but, I doubt that a piece “protected” nesting habitat will retain its “protected” status for very long after it burns at high intensity and is unsuitable. Sure, it may be lumped in with the foraging habitat, because it is easier to just sign a piece of paper, saying so. However, the point is that nesting habitat is extremely finite, and it takes maybe centuries to “grow”, if at all. Consider the Rim Fire, for example. Most of that hasn’t been owl habitat for at least 50 years. Most of those areas won’t be growing big trees, anytime soon.

            Well, I guess it is up to either the birds to adapt, or die a long, slow and painful death…. by (protected) habitat loss. “Whatever happens” seems to be the policy of choice, these days.

              • It is listed as threatened, and gets similar “protections”, often in the same habitats as the owls. As habitats go, these are the most at-risk of all forested areas, and quickly becoming the most rare, too. The California Spotted Owl isn’t even listed but, it arguably gets more protections than the NSO. I see the recovery plans as being short-sighted and lacking in risk assessment regarding fuels. Besides, those plans are based on the science of the 80’s and 90’s, and not the “best available science” of today.

                • as Jon notes, the Northern Goshawk is NOT ESA listed, as threatened or otherwise. However, it is a sensitive species in most FS regions, and is also commonly a management indicator species.

                  • From Wikipedia:

                    “In North America, several non-governmental conservation organizations petitioned the Department of Interior, United States Fish & Wildlife Service (1991 & 1997) to list the goshawk as “threatened” or “endangered” under the authority of the Endangered Species Act. Both petitions argued for listing primarily on the basis of historic and ongoing nesting habitat loss, specifically the loss of old-growth and mature forest stands throughout the goshawk’s known range. In both petitions, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concluded that listing was not warranted, but state and federal natural resource agencies responded during the petition process with standardized and long-term goshawk inventory and monitoring efforts, especially throughout U.S. Forest Service lands in the Western U.S. The United States Forest Service (US Dept of Agriculture) has listed the goshawk as a “sensitive species”, while it also benefits from various protection at the state level. In North America, the goshawk is federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 by an amendment incorporating native birds of prey into the Act in 1972. The northern goshawk is also listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species”

                    So, in the end, the powers that be seem willing to stick to the current program of hoping that habitats don’t burn down. It’s a way of saying “We did what we could but, it wasn’t enough in the face of Mankind’s impacts”. I don’t buy it, because they aren’t following the “best available science”. I’m sure that lawsuits could be expected if the Forest Service were to propose changes to their goshawk and owl policies. A few years ago, I did hear that people were discussing ways to manage fuels in “owl circles”. There is also talk of lifting the 30″ dbh cutting ban, in favor of a more sophisticated way of thinning trees between 20″ dbh and 48″ dbh. Yes, in some areas, those size classes (in certain species) ARE overstocked, in the matrix of mixed conifer old growth forests, here in the Sierra Nevada. (Too much white fir and incense cedar)

      • JonH

        You are correct. ESA it is.

        Re: “… ESA decisions the viewpoint has to based on the best available science”
        —> Who decides what is the “best available science”? Apparently what was deemed the “best available science” for the NSO wasn’t the “best available science”. Forester’s concerns were dismissed and have come true. After 20+ years of the NSO recovery plan, populations have decreased 40-50% and they continue to decrease at the rate of ?2.9%? per year. The only place where the NSO has held its own is in intensively managed private ownership using that horrible practice known as clearcuts and plantation management. Surprise, surprise, now the greatest loss of habitat is due to wildfire because sound forest management has been excluded. Foresters were ignored even though the established science and facts proffered by foresters turns out to have been the real “best available science”.

        Re: “The characterization of a listed species as ‘minor’ sounds like it’s based on emotion or an incomplete understanding of the ecosystem.”
        —> Jon, it is exactly the opposite. A complete understanding of ecosystems tells us that it is comprised of keystone species and non keystone (minor) species. Keystone species create the ecosystem all the way down to micro-climate. Minor species are those species that are dependent on the keystone species to create the ecosystem that they need in order to survive.
        —> What is based on emotion and incomplete understanding of the ecosystem is assuming that you can save a minor species without considering the impact of your proposed recovery plan on the keystone species that creates the habitat that the minor species depends on to survive. So what good is it to try to save the NSO when you are allowing fuel densities to build to excessive levels to the point that the greatest loss of habitat is now due to wildfire? So what good is it to try to save the NSO when you are allowing stand densities to build to excessive levels so as to decrease their vigor because of unacceptable competition for sunlight and water of already weakened over mature stands thereby increasing their risk of loss to insects and shortened life span? So what good is it to try to save the NSO when you are allowing stand densities to build to excessive levels so as to block out the sunlight necessary to naturally grow replacement shade intolerant habitat tree species and are instead encouraging natural regeneration of shade tolerant hemlocks which are not suitable habitat for the NSO? So what good is it to try to save the NSO when you are not creating any new stands of potential habitat in order to have habitat ready when the last of the suitable old growth dies for what ever reason?

        So the takeaway is that you can’t save a minor/dependent species, if you don’t take care of the keystone species also. Those are the cold hard facts that comprise established science established through statistically sound research, cross validated by numerous other independent scientists over decades on many different sites and for many different species and then validated by operational practice on millions of acres and a wide variety of species.

        • Jon, it is exactly the opposite. A complete understanding of ecosystems tells us that it is comprised of keystone species and non keystone (minor) species. Keystone species create the ecosystem all the way down to micro-climate. Minor species are those species that are dependent on the keystone species to create the ecosystem that they need in order to survive.

          Your definition and characterization of “keystone species” is completely wrong, as has been pointed out several times before. But as I know you’re sensitive about lectured to, it’s probably best if you take the time to look it up yourself. Google will point you to any number of definitions and examples, all of which are both consistent and consistently different from yours.

          • GuyK

            Sorry but you are dead wrong on all points.
            1) That is the way it started out but it has evolved to be more inclusive as you can see here especially in the first and last paragraphs.
            —> “… protect one, key species and in doing so stabilize an entire community. But the keystone species theory remains a young theory and the underlying concepts are still being developped. For instance, the term was originally applied to a predator species (Pisaster ochracceus), but now the term ‘keystone’ has been extended to include prey species, plants, and even habitat resources
            2) If you don’t like that source then this National Geographic link ought to satisfy your definition of a reputable source
            —> “A keystone species is a plant or animal that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions. Without keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.”
            3) From Wikipedia in a paragraph titled “Mutualists”, we find the following:
            —> “the loss of this one species of tree would probably cause the honeyeater population to collapse, with profound implications for the entire ecosystem
            4) From the Encyclopedia Britanica, we find the following:
            —> “In some forest communities in tropical America, figs and a few other plants act as keystone species but in a very different manner from the starfish Pisaster. Such plants serve as keystone food resources.”

            I’ll grant you one modification to what I said in that, as a forester, I was speaking only of tree species when they create a forest ecosystem right down to modifying the microclimate:
            a) Instead of saying: “Keystone species create the ecosystem all the way down to micro-climate” – admittedly that does not apply to all animals but it does apply to some such as the beaver.
            —> I should have qualified my statement a little to something like the following:
            b) When trees constitute the keystone species in a forest ecosystem they create the ecosystem all the way down to micro-climate.

              • GuyK

                A) Since we are hung up on terminology, let’s begin by forgetting about terminology altogether:
                —> Can we agree that a Forest Ecosystem ceases to exist if the trees cease to exist?
                —> Can we agree that if a 400,000 acre wildfire nukes 60,000 acres leaving no surviving regeneration or viable seed and no sufficiently close seed source for a very large portion of that acreage, it will be a very long time before a forest ecosystem can be reestablished naturally and there is a real possibility that it may never be restored but instead be replaced by another type of ecosystem?

                B) Now let’s talk terminology:

                1) I’ll go along with you, your peers and the EPA if you create a new species criteria called the REQUIRED/ESSENTIAL/CORNERSTONE/FOUNDATION SPECIES which would be defined as the collective species without which the particular ecosystem would cease to exist regardless of their abundance or biomass. Such a term would include but not be limited to ecologist’s architecture based definition of a keystone. Until then, you have a set of five species principles in a box that excludes the most important species principle in the ecology of a forest ecosystem (see you EPA link). Until then, keystone species is the closest classification that you have to ascribe to the trees that create the ecosystem and bring about the forest ecosystem’s total collapse when their needs aren’t met. Until then, you are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

                2) If you can’t agree with my previous paragraph, what ecological classification terminology do you use to describe the ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL role that the trees play in a forest ecosystem?

                • hi Gil, I like your term “essential”, it’s descriptive and gets away from the architectural terminology that sometimes is more metaphor than useful. “Dominant” is useful to describe the most abundant or largest biomass species (and it shows up in the ecology literature), but “essential” is good because like you say it describes the “species without which the particular ecosystem would cease to exist regardless of their abundance or biomass.” What would the Pine Barrens be without the pines? There may be a more common term for that but I don’t know of one.

                  And for sure I wouldn’t disagree that a huge fire that “nukes” regen and seed source is likely to have a major and lasting effect on the ecosystem. A good example might be Mt. St. Helens, I was looking at one article that used words somewhat similar to yours, “…it serves as a lesson that once destroyed, nature is not always easy to replace.” I think that more generally that concept needs to permeate our whole “new century of forest planning”, not just in fire ecology, but that’s probably a topic for another thread.


                  • GuyK

                    Isn’t it a wonderful thing to find common ground.

                    Thank you for your most courteous reply.

                    Now to test our new found common ground:-)
                    1) Do you agree that the EPA’s / ecologist’s terminology is deficient as I interpret your statement above?
                    2) Do you agree that the ecologists and other “ologists” often focus on the micro (i.e. looking through the wrong end of the telescope) has had some significant negative impacts on “ESSENTIAL SPECIES” that they overlooked in trying to meet ESA requirements and thereby were self defeating?

  6. The question of how ESA deals with tradeoffs is a good one, partly because the kinds of “decisions” required by ESA are not subject to NEPA’s requirements for effects analysis and alternatives.

    For listing decisions, the listing agencies can only consider the statutory biological criterion of whether a species is in danger of extinction based on the five listing factors. Loss of natural fire regimes could be considered as a listing factor (I think that was the case for lynx). In such cases, we would expect recovery plans to call for actions that restore an appropriate fire regime.

    However, such actions are limited to those that do not jeopardize the species (or another species), as determined through the project consultation process. While the NEPA process encourages consideration of tradeoffs, ESA can put sideboards on that.

    I think the best place to ask this kind of question is during the forest planning process, where ESA consultation could focus on the entire package of conservation and restoration measures and determine whether they would contribute to recovery of all affected species (required by 36 CFR 219.9). If a plan does that, it should help the project-by-project consultation process by providing a better understanding of cumulative effects.

    The planning process and associated consultation should address the risk of action vs. inaction on a particular landscape for a particular species. (May the best available science win;-)

    • So, where do we stop? What about the loss of flood habitats along the whole of the Mississippi River watershed? Certainly there is an abundance of rare organisms that prefer flood-prone landscapes. How come eco-groups aren’t clamoring for levee removal and Imminent Domain, in the name of rare bugs, slugs and snails?

      With humans, resources and improvements throughout out landscapes, there simply is no way to “restore an appropriate fire regime”, in most areas. It needs to be more about employing an appropriate fuels regime, outside of lodgepole stands. The public isn’t going to buy into the “free-range wildfire” fantasy that some continue to push.

      • Northern goshawk: “not listed” (found “not warranted” in 1998).
        (The Queen Charlotte goshawk in Alaska is listed as threatened.)

        The northern spotted owl is listed as threatened and is found in northern California. From the 2011 Recovery Plan:

        “Currently, the most important range-wide threats to the spotted owl are
        competition with barred owls, ongoing loss of spotted owl habitat as a result of
        timber harvest, habitat loss or degradation from stand replacing wildfire and
        other disturbances, and loss of amount and distribution of spotted owl habitat as a result of past activities and disturbances.”

        “There is evidence of spotted owls occupying territories that have been burned by
        fires of all severities. The limited data on spotted owl use of burned areas seems
        to indicate that different fire severities may provide for different functions. For
        example, spotted owls appear to select high severity burns for foraging, but
        avoid roosting or nesting in these sites. However, there are multiple
        confounding factors and uncertainties in the data on this topic which limit the
        strength of the conclusions that can be drawn.”

        They are working on Mississippi River floodplain restoration:

        • The critical element for both owls and goshawks is nesting habitats. They use almost any area for “foraging habitat”, and those areas don’t need “protections”. Owls also “select” clearcuts as prime foraging habitat. Just because an owl is seen in a burned area, that surely doesn’t mean they are reproducing. In fact, we can be sure that they aren’t nesting in burned areas. Remember, to be a viable nesting pair, they need MULTIPLE nests in their territory. They also have to defend that nesting area, both from goshawks and other owls, including barred owls. As core nesting habitats disappear, one by one, we’ll see the birds trying to establish new nesting areas in less-than-optimal habitat. Their predators will pick and pluck nests of baby birds, and the larger birds’ populations will rise. I rather doubt that natural forest growth can supply the nesting habitats faster than they are burning. Some nesting pairs won’t produce offspring every year. Remember, last year’s nest is usually unusable, due to the mess that baby birds make with their many weeks of eating and pooping in the nest.

          These are the realities of the forests where I live. Are these species really on the road to “recovery”?

  7. I know Dominick DellaSalla and his Geos Institute. I know this is a strong indictment, but I consider him and the Institute a hoax and a fraud. Further, your analysis about his statement is correct, and so is your view of the Cautionary Principle, in my opinion.


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