Date registered: Aug 2002
Vehicle: 2021 SL770
Location: Fountain Hills, AZ
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Wildlife scientists feeling heat, Species-protection data suppressed
Scientists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say they've been forced to alter or withhold findings that would have led to greater protections for endangered species, according to a survey released Wednesday by two environmental groups.
The scientists charge that top regional and national officials in the agency suppressed scientific information to avoid confrontations with industry groups or to follow the Bush administration's political policies.
The mail-in survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- which drew responses from 414 of 1,400 biologists, ecologists, botanists and other scientists -- was not a scientific poll. But the two groups said the large number of responses reflect concern by of many Fish and Wildlife Service employees that political appointees are inappropriately influencing the science that drives decisions to list species and protect their habitat.
A spokesman for the agency said he could not comment on the report until agency officials have had time to review it.
But an Interior Department official said the survey results reflect the natural tension between agency scientists and managers in making tough decisions about protecting species.
"There's nothing inappropriate about people higher up the chain of command supervising the work of people below them and reaching different scientific conclusions," said Hugh Vickery, an Interior Department spokesman.
"These (decisions) should get scrutiny. That's what they pay these folks for," he said. "The question at hand is, are they doing their job properly and in accordance with the law? The answer is yes. Does everyone like it? No. But they are doing it properly."
The results were released a day before Republican leaders in Congress, led by House Resources Chairman Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, were scheduled to announce their strategy to pass a major overhaul of the Endangered Species Act, which critics say is failing to save species from extinction.
Two senior House Democrats who oppose the proposed changes to the act sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton on Wednesday urging her to respond to the charges of political interference by agency officials.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's credibility rests on its scientific integrity," wrote Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va. "If political agendas are allowed to overrule science, that credibility will be compromised."
Forty-four percent of the scientists who responded to the survey said they have been asked by their superiors to avoid making findings that would require greater protection of endangered species.
One in five agency scientists reported being directed to alter or withhold technical information from scientific documents.
And more than half of the respondents -- 56 percent -- said agency officials have reversed or withdrawn scientific conclusions under pressure from industry groups.
The sponsors of the survey, who often have criticized President Bush's environmental policies, said the results are part of a broader effort by administration officials to mold scientific findings to support their policies.
Last week, the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the agency has failed to fully assess the health impacts of mercury pollution because political appointees have intervened and compromised scientific practices. EPA officials denied the charge.
"The political manipulation of science is an ongoing problem with this administration," said Lexi Shultz of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Nearly 30 percent of the Fish and Wildlife Service scientists queried responded to the survey -- a high rate, especially since several regional offices had urged employees not to reply. An official in the Great Lakes regional office asked the staff, in a memo, not to fill out the survey "in the office or from home."
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Mitch Snow said officials in Washington had directed employees only to not answer any unauthorized surveys during working hours.
The written comments reflect a view shared by many agency scientists that politics have clouded decisions on whether to list species as endangered and designate areas of critical habitat.
One scientist from the Pacific region, which includes California and five other western states, reported being involved in two decisions to list species as endangered that were reversed, allegedly due to political pressure.
"Science was ignored -- and, worse, manipulated to build a bogus set of rationale for reversal of these listing decisions," the scientist wrote.
Another scientist from the Pacific region concluded: "I have never seen so many findings and recommendations by the field be turned around at the regional and Washington level. All we can do at the field level is ensure that our administrative record is complete and hope we get sued by an environmental or conservation organization."
The survey gave no specifics about which agency decisions were changed because of politics. The survey's sponsors said many scientists did not cite specific cases for fear they would be identified and would face retaliation for speaking out.
Sally Stefferud, a scientist who worked for 20 years at the agency before retiring three years ago, said that in the past political pressure affected only a few high-profile decisions but that now it is affecting almost all agency actions on endangered species.
Stefferud, who helped prepare the study, noted that field scientists in the Southwest region who study the impact of grazing on federal lands are now accompanied by the grazing permit holders, who she said are unlikely to show researchers any potential harm to endangered species.
"The data can become very easily distorted," Stefferud said.
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