Wolves, the Endangered Species Act, and Why Scientific Integrity Matters

August 19, 2013
Andrew Rosenberg
Director, Center for Science and Democracy

Shark week has come and gone, and as a marine scientist I feel most at home with these top predators, but it is another, equally charismatic predator species that is in the news.  You can guess that because I said “charismatic” I wasn’t referring to Congress.

The possibility that the federal government would remove conservation measures for gray wolves and decide that they are no longer at risk of extinction is in the news not because of some new finding that wolf populations are recovering, but because of apparent political interference in the process of reviewing the science that is the basis for that determination.

How the Endangered Species Act Works

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the Department of Interior is responsible for administering the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for most of the flora and fauna of the U.S. For marine species, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the Department of Commerce has the responsibility. I used to work as a scientist, and then as a lead regulator for the NMFS and have first-hand experience with implementing the ESA.

In a very real sense, the ESA is the protection of last resort for species of unique plants and animals that are determined to be in danger of extinction, in other words, lost forever from our natural heritage. ESA protections that should only come into play when all other conservation and management measures have not been successful at protecting that natural heritage.

Endangered species are often controversial, as you might expect. In every case that I am aware of, endangerment is due to the actions and activities of people. So removing threats to the continued existence of a species means that someone, somewhere will have to change their behavior.

While we might like to think we manage species and natural ecosystems, in reality we manage people and their impacts upon nature. For the marine species I worked with, from salmon to sturgeon to turtles, sea lions, seals, and whales there was incredible controversy on all sides, with some who wanted more protection and others who wanted less or none at all.

A  species is “listed” as threatened or endangered under the ESA when a scientific review has determined its continued existence is in jeopardy. The law clearly lays out that science should determine the conservation status of the species — not economic considerations or political positions. These other factors can be taken into account when regulators develop a plan to protect the species.

If we are to protect biodiversity, that is how it should be, a decision based on science, not politics. This is why UCS continues to work with biologists and other scientists with relevant expertise to explain to Congress and the media that for the Endangered Species Act to be most effective, it must be grounded in the best available science.

But unfortunately, wolves are proving to be an exception.

So what’s happening with the wolves?

Wolves are among the most controversial of endangered species, and are being considered for de-listing, that is, a conclusion that they are no longer threatened or in danger of extinction and ESA protections are no longer needed. Not only does the law require a full, objective scientific assessment, in such a controversial setting, common sense demands it.

That means the FWS should follow the best process of developing scientific advice. Do the analysis, present the data and conclusions, have it independently peer reviewed by experts in the field. Ensure that all conflicts of interest are disclosed. Make the information public as far as possible while respecting any privacy concerns. And when determining what action to take, be clear about its reasoning, without trying to manipulate the facts to support a preconceived position.

While these basic steps in developing the scientific advice were underway, the agency intervened in the process of selecting peer reviewers, excluding some that had already been critical of the scientific basis of the proposed rule on wolves. A significant number of leading experts in the field joined this group to criticize the agency in an open letter.  Excluding critics from a peer review when they are highly qualified and respected in the field, and when they raise serious methodological and scientific issues, undermines the very purpose of a peer review. The whole point is to make sure that key methodological, theoretical or empirical errors are caught and addressed so that the agency acts on the best science available. Furthermore, and critical in this case, if the policy-makers manipulate the review process to try to influence the result, the integrity of the advice is lost.

Fortunately, the FWS has backed away from that position. What needs to happen now is to take the time to do a full assessment complete with a comprehensive, independent peer review, adhering strictly to the agency’s science integrity policy. It is vital to include a range of experts in the review and address the scientific issues that they raise.  Let’s not endanger scientific advice in the name of trying to declare victory for species recovery. When that happens we should all howl.