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For Immediate Release, August 12, 2013

Contact: Brett Hartl, (202) 817-8121

Agency Backtracks on Attempt to Exclude Wolf Experts From Review of Delisting Proposal

WASHINGTON— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that it will put on hold the scientific peer review of its proposal to remove protections for gray wolves across the country while it reviews its own actions leading to the disqualification of three scientists from the review panel.

Last week it was revealed that three scientists were excluded from the peer review because they signed a letter calling into question some of the science behind the proposal to delist the gray wolf. While the Service initially claimed that it had not asked for the three scientists to be removed, emails between the contractor supervising the peer review process and the scientists themselves confirmed that the Service had in fact done exactly that.

“We’re glad to see the Fish and Wildlife Service admit this mistake and hope this means there will be a true independent review of this deeply flawed proposal to remove protections for gray wolves,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately, this is but one example of how the Fish and Wildlife Service has been twisting the scientific process to get the desired political result of no more protections for wolves.”  

Peer review, a step required by the Endangered Species Act, is critical in ensuring that federal protections are not lifted before a species is fully recovered. In the case of the wolves, the Fish and Wildlife Service is contracting with a private company to conduct the peer review. Recognizing their scientific expertise, the private contractor hired for the review contacted several of the signers to the letter to participate in the review, including Dr. John Vucetich, Dr. Robert Wayne and Dr. Roland Kays.  As part of its contract, the outside contractor was required to submit the résumés of each peer reviewer to the Service with the names redacted. However, because each of these scientists has published hundreds of articles, it was easy for the Service to deduce who the contractor had selected. The Service then sent the contractor a copy of the letter asking that any signers be removed.  

“The Service should take a moment to reflect on why it felt it was necessary to go to such lengths to control the peer review process of this proposal,” said Hartl. “Perhaps it’s because the decision to delist the gray wolf is based on politics, not solely on the best available science.”

This is the first time the Fish and Wildlife Service has imposed restrictions at the outset for whether scientists could be involved in peer review based on what it termed an “affiliation with an advocacy position.” In contrast, during the review of the 2012 proposal to designate critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, the agency invited 40 scientists to participate, a number of whom had spoken out for stronger protections for the owl, to review the proposal and none were preemptively disqualified from the review. In what was a clear attempt to limit meaningful scientific comment, the peer review process was put in jeopardy.

The Service also appears to have circumvented proper scientific channels in concluding that there are two different wolf species in the United States, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon), a determination that formed a primary basis for removing protections. Rather than attempting to publish their taxonomic findings in an independent, outside journal subject to normal peer review processes, the Service revived North American Fauna, an internal agency publication that had been dormant for more than 20 years, just to publish this one taxonomic proposal on wolves. 

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, which today survive in just 5 percent of their historic range in the lower 48. 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.

Background on Scientists Excluded from Review:

The following scientists were excluded based on the Service’s new restrictions on peer reviewers:

  • Dr. John Vucetich of Michigan Technological University. Vucetich has been studying the wolves of Isle Royale National Park for the past 20 years and is one of nation’s leading wolf researchers. Vucetich was a member of the Mexican wolf recovery team and in 2011 participated as a peer reviewer of the Service’s decision to drop federal protections for the gray wolf in Wyoming.
  • Dr. Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles. Wayne is a leading wildlife geneticist and has studied the evolutionary and ecological relationship between wolves and other canine species in the United States and around the world.
  • Dr. Roland Kays of North Carolina State University. Kays is a zoologist whose research focuses on the ecology and conservation of mammals. Kays’ research has focused on the genetic relationship and evolution of wolves and coyotes in North America.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 625,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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