Business Over Biology

Politics trump science in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sleek, tawny and solitary, the Florida panther roamed Southeastern swamplands for a millennia. But in a story familiar to Arizonans, human encroachment has whittled the big cat's numbers to less than 100.

Today, instead of wandering Florida, they reside primarily on the endangered species list. But according to a disturbing new survey, panthers aren't the only creatures imperiled by anti-environmental Bush administration policies.

Just ask Andrew Eller. He spent many of his 17 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protecting the panther. But when his research didn't jibe with a huge airport project slated for the cat's habitat--and Eller refused to play along--he was given the boot.

"I was fired three days after President Bush was re-elected," he says. "It was obviously reprisal for holding different views than (USFWS) management on whether or not the panther was in jeopardy, and pointing out that they were using flawed science to support their view."

A November survey circulated among 1,400 USFWS biologists, ecologists and botanists reveals that Eller is hardly alone. Issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, it shows supreme unhappiness with current agency policy. The survey itself arose from great concern among agency scientists afraid to speak out publicly, says Rebecca Roose, PEER's program director in Washington, D.C.

She calls the Florida panther a case-in-point. Administration officials "see a result they want to achieve, and they skew the data to get there--regardless of any balancing, or any effort to make a legitimate decision."

Survey results reinforce her point. Nearly half of the agency's botanists, biologists and ecologists report having "been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making ... findings that are protective of species." For every five agency scientists, at least one has been "directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a USFWS scientific document," the survey said.

More than 50 percent were aware of instances when "commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention." And two out of three scientists--and nine out of 10 managers--were familiar with cases "where U.S. Department of Interior political appointees have injected themselves into Ecological Services determinations."

Reigning over this melancholy agency is Gale Norton, head of the U.S. Interior Department, which includes the Fish and Wildlife Service. While USFWS Director Steve Williams is widely seen as dedicated to wildlife, Norton--his boss--is considered by many to be a pro-development Republican ideologue.

No one should believe that Williams is calling the shots, says Bart Semcer, Washington, D.C., representative for the Sierra Club. Semcer blames Norton for "micromanaging Fish and Wildlife, right down to the field biologists." The result, say critics, is an agency where pro-business power has run amok.

"In a nutshell, the politics are becoming dominant in decisions that are supposed to be based on science," says Sally Stefferud, a recently retired USFWS biologist living in Phoenix. "The Bush administration's attitude is quite different than we've experienced for quite awhile. Their take on science--and the role of politics in science--is unlike anything I experienced in my 20 years with the Fish and Wildlife Service."

Stefferud helped draft the survey, and notes that political meddling has always cursed wildlife policy. But it "used to be a few high-profile decisions that became political, and got influenced at a fairly high level in the agency," she says. "Now, everyone is being pressured, right down to bottom-level biologists. And they're being pressured on nearly every project they do."

It's unclear how many USFWS employees in Arizona completed the anonymous survey; for obvious reasons, they aren't eager to publicly criticize their agency. Speaking to the Tucson Weekly, one USFWS employee, who asked that his name not be used, questioned the survey's validity, saying those most likely to respond were employees with axes to grind.

Stefferud dismisses that notion. "These people love this agency," she says. "A lot of them wanted to work for Fish and Wildlife pretty badly when they got out of college, and they were happy to get there. It kills them to see what's happening to the agency."

But Hugh Vickery, a DOI spokesman in Washington, D.C., says claims of political meddling are old hat. "I don't have a dog in this fight; as a civil servant, I'm here no matter who gets elected. But I used to have these same conversations during the Clinton administration."

Besides, "we don't even know who (the respondents) are," says Vickery. "The survey includes a lot of allegations, without specifics."

But Norton's behavior offers plenty of specific examples: her attempts at stifling the Endangered Species Act vary from misrepresenting the gray wolf's historic range to delaying habitat protection for imperiled Arizona species. In April 2003, the Los Angeles Times revealed an internal USFWS document detailing agency plans to delay critical habitat-mapping for 24 endangered species, including Arizona's Mexican spotted owl, pygmy owl and Southwestern willow flycatcher. The pygmy owl and flycatcher are among 55 species slated for protection under Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

But the stage was set nearly two years earlier when David Smith, DOI deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, addressed a group in Tucson. He cited Bush administration plans for "beefing up the level of economic analysis" in endangered species cases, and for "charting a path that strikes the right balance" between business and wildlife protection.

Back in Florida, Andrew Eller experienced that "right balance" firsthand. "I was simply pointing out that (the agency) was using inflated population estimates, inflated survival rates and inflated reproductive rates to make the panther population look healthier than it was," he says. "And now, I'm unemployed."

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