Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Center for Biological Diversity: Agency backtracks on attempt to exclude wolf experts from review of wolf delisting proposal

From a Center for Biological Diversity Press Release
Posted Aug. 12, 2013

Photo of wolf courtesy Wolfwatcher.org. Reprinted with permission.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Aug. 12, 2013, 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.

Dr. John Vucetich, co-director of the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study and Michigan Tech professor of wildlife ecology and management, was one of the three excluded scientists. Vucetich has been studying the wolves of Isle Royale National Park for the past 20 years and is one of the 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.

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.

Here is an interview with John Vucetich from the California Wolf Center posted on Aug. 9, 2013:

The California Wolf Center interviews Michigan Tech Professor and wildlife ecologist John Vucetich, co-director of the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study, concerning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) exclusion of scientists from a peer review of their wolf delisting proposal. This interview was posted on Aug. 9, 2013. USFWS announced on Aug. 12, 2013, that it would put the peer review on hold. (Video courtesy California Wolf Center. Re-published with permission.)

"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. Vucetich, Dr. Robert Wayne and Dr. Roland Kays.

Dr. Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, 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 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.

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."**....

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 five percent of their historic range in the lower 48.***

Notes:

* Click here to read the May 21, 2013, letter from scientists addressed to Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and Dan Ashe, Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

** Click here to read the June 25, 2013, Order Statement of Work from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Criteria for peer reviewers are listed on pp. 2-3. Under "Advocacy," the document states, ""Reviewers will not be known or recognized for an affiliation with an advocacy position regarding the protection of this species under the Endangered Species Act."

*** Please note that wolves in Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment (which includes wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and portions of adjacent states) were delisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2011 (by a rule that took effect in January 2012). Click here for USFWS Questions and Answers on that decision. Since then Minnesota, Wisconsin, and -- most recently -- Michigan have legislated wolf hunts. A petition for a referendum against the second Michigan legislation (PA 21) to allow a wolf harvest (despite the success of a first petition drive against an earlier law) is now underway. Watch for a story on this, coming soon.

Visit the Center for Biological Diversity Web site for more background on their efforts to protect wolves.

See also this article by environmental journalist Todd Wilkinson: "Feds' wolf panel fails on science, objectivity."

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