Deciding when and how to protect endangered species is no easy feat. It requires a deft understanding of biology, the complex workings of the landscapes where animals live and the mechanisms that drive them toward extinction.
The last thing the process needs is meddling from politicians or industries. That’s why Congress drew up the Endangered Species Act to require that protection decisions be based solely on the best-available science.
I spent 11 years at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including five years as the field supervisor of the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office in Hawaii. I retired last year and still have many friends and colleagues at the agency doing important, species-saving work in a world under threat from climate change, human encroachment and a host of other factors.
That’s why I am troubled by some revelations of a recent survey of nearly 7,000 scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The focus of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ survey was scientific integrity. It found these agencies have made strides in “protecting science from inappropriate influences;” but it also found there is significant work left to be done. I know how hard some of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s leadership has tried to increase scientific capacity and safeguard scientific integrity. So, while it is heartening to see morale has improved since the Bush administration’s scientific meddling, other results are disconcerting. Three are of particular concern.
Loss of effectiveness. Nearly one of every three Fish and Wildlife Service employees perceive the agencies’ effectiveness to be declining. This decline appears to be linked to reduction in staff, with Fish and Wildlife Service showing an 11 percent decrease since 2012, while the other agencies either increased or maintained their staff. I can attest to the huge impact staffing decreases have had on the functioning of these offices.
Lack of monitoring and data collection. Only 36 percent of responding staff felt the Fish and Wildlife Service always or frequently collected the information needed to support its mission – the data required to manage wildlife refuges, conserve species, develop mitigation for needed projects, and undertake strategic landscape partnerships. This has been a complaint in the agency for almost two decades.
Political influence. Nearly three of four surveyed staff felt the agency gives too much consideration to political interests and 45 percent felt that way about business interests. Fifty-four percent felt too little consideration was given to wildlife conservation. More than a third of staff reported experiencing instances where business, Congress, or advocacy groups forced the withdrawal or modification of agency actions. More than 60 percent of surveyed staff reported experiencing some form of inappropriate influence on their use of science.
Personally, I rarely saw inappropriate influence. So, it is troubling to see these results and a string of recent decisions in which the agency appears to have bowed to pressure from state governments to reduce, eliminate or prevent protection of endangered species. Protection proposals have been withdrawn (wolverine, dunes sagebrush lizard), listing protections weakened with loopholes requested by industries (northern long-eared bat, lesser prairie chicken), recovery plans and actions sidelined or stalled (Mexican gray wolf and red wolf) and dissenting managers reassigned (dunes sagebrush lizard).
So, what to do? The work done by the many talented and dedicated scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service is critical to ensuring the survival of America’s most vulnerable wildlife and shouldn’t be subjected to the whims of state and federal politics or the pressures of industry lobbyists.
I am hopeful that the service will take a long hard look at these results, consult with staff to identify root problems and then fix these issues. Too much is at risk to do nothing.
With unprecedented attacks on the Endangered Species Act in Congress (a 600-percent increase in recent years, including more than 60 anti-endangered species bills introduced just this year), hostile state governments trying to thwart wildlife conservation efforts, and declining federal budgets, it is critical that the Fish and Wildlife Service remains a strong voice for conservation and scientific integrity.
It’s no accident that 99 percent of the species protected by the Endangered Species Act have been saved from extinction.
When the science is followed, the Act and other conservation laws work – the species that need help, get help, and we are all the better for it. When political influence has its way, wildlife and the rest of us lose.
Mehrhoff is recovery director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
You can also find the report methodology, results, comparison with past UCS surveys, all of the open-ended responses to questions, and the survey instrument all online at www.ucsusa.org/scientistsurvey.