In a direct affront to scientific integrity in policymaking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has purged three of the nation’s top wolf experts from a scientific peer review of the agency’s plan to remove federal protections from the gray wolf . The three were barred because they had signed a letter with 13 other scientists expressing concern about the scientific basis for the federal plan, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
On June 7 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior, proposed to remove the gray wolf (Canis lupus) from the list of threatened and endangered species. The gray wolf has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1973, after being exterminated from the lower 48 states by the mid-20th century.
On May 21, 16 leading wolf scientists, “collectively representing many of the scientists responsible for the research referenced in the draft rule,” wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe calling into question the scientific legitimacy of the FWS proposal. (Read the full letter and list of signers here.) The letter, written after an advance view of the draft rule, says in part:
Based on a careful review of the rule, we do not believe that the rule reflects the conclusions of our work or the best available science concerning the recovery of wolves, or is in accordance with the fundamental purpose of the Endangered Species Act to conserve endangered species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. …
From a statement released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on August 8 (“Gray Wolf Peer Review Panel Purged by Agency”):
The federal wolf de-listing plan is the subject of an accelerated peer review conducted by a private consultant firm, AMEC, chosen by FWS. Although the peer review is supposed to be independent of FWS, the agency controls selection of the reviewers engaged by the contractor.
FWS exercised that control in blocking at least three of the seven names on AMEC’s list of reviewers chosen for their qualifications: Dr. Roland Kays of North Carolina State University, Dr. Jon Vucetich of Michigan Technological University and Dr. Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles. All have published extensively on the wolf and are considered preeminent experts.
In an August 7th email to one of the scientists, an AMEC official stated that the FWS had vetoed his participation in the peer review even though the firm had already selected him for his qualifications:
“I apologize for telling you that you were on the project and then having to give you this news. I understand how frustrating it must be, but we have to go with what the service [sic] wants.”
While the FWS claims that it seeks an “unbiased” review panel, given that this issue has received much discussion in both the media and scientific journals over the past decade the agency’s posture results in the exclusion of almost all qualified wolf scientists. This may leave the panel with only those experts who have never opined publicly on the issue, either because they favor delisting or they feel it inappropriate to comment on such proposals due to income from federal contracts.
“To avoid dealing with the serious scientific concerns raised by its delisting plan, the Fish & Wildlife Service is packing the review panel for its own proposal,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Selecting your own reviewers defeats the purpose of independent peer review.”
The May 21st letter signed by the 16 prominent wolf researchers presented a number of serious scientific concerns with the gray wolf delisting plan as well as lack of designated habitat for the highly endangered Mexican wolf. The letter was submitted as a public comment to which the Service has yet to respond, although this week’s action suggests it was read.
The FWS disqualification of scientists appears at odds with White House Office of Management & Budget guidance which states that selection of peer reviewers should be primarily driven by expertise of the reviewer, followed by a need for balance to reflect competing scientific viewpoints followed by their independence from the agency.
The AMEC wolf peer review is slated to be completed by September 11th but the peer reviewers will not be provided with the public comments containing issues raised by scientific experts.
“Steamrolling a fast-track scientific review on a matter of this controversy underlines that it is politics not science driving the decision-making,” Ruch added. “If it wants to maintain any credibility, the Fish & Wildlife Service should openly address and resolve the array of serious scientific criticisms which have been leveled. This peer review charade will only lead to more litigation which could have been avoided.”
Center for Biological Diversity, Top Wolf Experts Excluded From Scientific Review of Wolf Delisting Proposal
This is the first time the Fish and Wildlife Service has excluded scientists simply because they had advocated for a particular position based on their scientific expertise. In a review of a 2012 proposal to designate critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, for example, the agency included 40 scientists, a number of whom had spoken out for stronger protections for the owl, to review the proposal. No scientists were disqualified from the review. Now, in a clear attempt to limit meaningful scientific comment, the peer review process may become nothing more than an empty formality.
The letter from the scientists and another from the American Society of Mammalogists raised a number of scientific questions about the agency’s proposal to remove protections for wolves. In particular, they questioned how wolves could be considered recovered when the species is absent from significant portions its range, and a determination by the Service that there are two species of wolves in the United States, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon). These are important questions that should be thoroughly vetted.
One of the purged scientists said he thinks the process is politically driven.
“What I understand happened is, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the contractor you can’t pick anybody that’s on that list,” said Vucetich, a professor at Michigan Technical University who has spent his career studying wolves. He was referring to the letter signed by the scientists who disagree with turning gray wolf management over to states.
The federal wolf proposal doesn’t reflect the best available science and fails to measure up to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, Vucetich said.
Sylvia Fallon, Natural Resources Defense Council, Stacking the science? Fish and Wildlife Service’s gray wolf peer review process:
[A] big part of what I do is outreach to the scientific community to encourage the primary scientists to weigh in on policy proposals in order to make sure that our wildlife management policies are based on the best available science. For the most part, scientists are eager to engage, but occasionally there are some that are hesitant to get involved in policy for fear of any professional backlash.
A decision today by the Fish and Wildlife Service to exclude three of the nation’s leading wolf experts from the Service’s peer review process demonstrates exactly why scientists are often hesitant to engage. …
We signed on to this letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe:
Dear Director Ashe,
I’m writing today to express my deep concern over your decision to exclude scientists, who have sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, on wolves from the official peer review panel for the Service’s wolf delisting proposal.
Good peer-review depends on evaluations by the most knowledgeable scientists in order to provide the Service with an expert, outside analysis of the proposed delisting.
Excluding scientists with a great deal of expertise simply because they have expressed an opinion on how their science was interpreted in the proposed delisting is contrary to guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences which the White House Office of Management and Budget requires agencies to adopt or adapt.
These guidelines state that peer reviewers should be selected primarily based on their expertise, followed by the need to balance competing scientific viewpoints on the panel, followed by their independence from the agency.
Frankly, excluding scientists with a scientific opinion on the topic violates these guidelines, lessens the available expertise for the panel, and gives the unfortunate impression that the Service is attempting to stack the deck in order to receive a favorable peer review on a controversial proposal.
I ask that you reverse this decision in order to ensure that the proposed delisting decision is based on quality and credible science.
In examining this controversy, on which some very strong views are held, we noted that Earth First!, taking a more direct action (and danger-courting) approach, has released a manual that provides detailed information for disrupting wolf hunting in those states that allow it.