CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY
| Monday, June 20, 2005, 11:00 a.m. EST
ASSAULT ON SCIENCE AT FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE PROVOKES SHARP CRITICISM BY MORE THAN 160 SCIENTISTS
LETTER RESPONDS TO DIRECTIVE ORDERING BIOLOGISTS TO IGNORE THE MOST CURRENT GENETIC INFORMATION FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES
In response to an effort to undercut science at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), 163 scientists called on Southwest Regional Director Dale Hall to rescind a policy prohibiting agency biologists from considering scientific information on the genetics of wildlife in danger of extinction when establishing recovery goals for those species. The new policy puts wildlife at risk by limiting the ability of agency scientists to ensure maximum genetic diversity of species on the brink of extinction.
"This new policy is a clear violation of the agency's mission under the Endangered Species Act to use the best available science," said Sally Stefferud, a former FWS biologist and signatory to the letter. "It lessens the agency's ability to protect the nation's wildlife and mandates irrevocable risks to the genetic diversity that is the very basis of their survival."
Species that are threatened or endangered may exist in smaller, often genetically distinct, populations. The Southwest Region policy prohibits biologists from considering the latest information on the genetic makeup of such subgroups when making decisions about recovery efforts - allowing subpopulations to be put at risk even if they might be needed for the overall survival of the species. The letter notes several species whose survival has relied on the protection of genetic diversity in different populations, such as the Apache trout, Gila trout, Mexican spotted owl and Southwestern willow flycatcher.
"Genetics and evolutionary information have to be incorporated for species to survive in the long-term," stated Dr. Phil Hedrick, Ullman Distinguished Professor of Conservation Biology at Arizona State University. "Ignoring new genetic findings that fall short of providing evidence that a separate species had evolved is completely inappropriate."
In the open letter, the scientists also note that the policy represents an interference with the normal scientific work of agency biologists in a manner that could undermine the protection of species. The letter states, "preclusion by policy fiat of the large body of scientific information…will prevent recovery teams and the Service from using the best available scientific information."
These suggestions of improper interference with science echo the results of a recent survey of FWS scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The survey found that nearly half the respondents in the Southwest region reported that they had been "directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making" findings protective of wildlife.
"Sound decisions about how best to ensure the recovery of endangered species will be impossible without accurate and current scientific information, said Lexi Shultz, Washington Representative for Scientific Integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Government scientists should be free to use the full box of scientific tools at their disposal. This policy is an assault on science that unreasonably hinders the scientists from doing their jobs."
The letter comes on the heels of unusual internal agency criticism of the policy. Hall's counterpart, Ralph Morgenweck, Regional Director of the Mountain Prairie Region issued a strongly worded memo rebuking the policy for contradicting the purposes of the Endangered Species Act. Now an equally unusual statement from expert conservation biologists and geneticists has joined the internal criticism.
The letter includes signatures of former Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and notable conservation scientists Dr. Stuart Pimm, Duke University's Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology, Dr. Gary Meffe, Editor of the journal Conservation Biology and Dr. Theo Colburn, author of the widely acclaimed book Our Stolen Future.
In calling for rescission of the policy, the scientists conclude: "the Southwest Region's new policy does not reflect the best available science, fails to meet the primary purpose of the Endangered Species Act, and goes against 30 years of Endangered Species Act implementation. We request that you rescind the policy and instead encourage recovery teams and agency biologists to make greater use of conservation genetics and meta-population analysis when analyzing potentially harmful projects and developing recovery plans."
"The Endangered Species Act is the nation's safety-net for imperiled wildlife," states Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "This new policy will gravely undermine the strong protections for the web of life provided by the Act."