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

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | August 19, 2013, 1:56 pm EDT
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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.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , ,

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  • We All came from Animals by destroying them
    Your destroying Your self..

  • Jeanne Rasmussen

    Thank you for this factual article. This whole issue of politics over science began when Senator John Tester slipped a rider turning “management” of wolves through a budget bill. He then made it impossible to litigate this issue thus preventing lawsuits. I believe it was unconstitutional but apparently is not. If nothing else it is dirty politics.

    It is now time for FWS to step up to the plate and allow these chosen scientists with “volumes” of scientific data that prove gray wolves are not recovered and should not be delisted in the lower 48 states. They need to follow what the endangered species act states and to stop changing the rules of the game.

  • thank you, mr. Rosenberg, for a clear view of what is happening. the local and state governments are using politics to state their claim that the grey wolf has recovered, while keeping the scientific community out of the “committee meetings” that they hold. it is happening all over the upper u.s.. the wolves of Yellowstone have been studied for years, now many of the collared wolves have been killed. it is a scientific fact that they are a positive influence on the ecology. these hunts are geared to the seasons when the wolves are mating, and are carrying pups, then are extended so that a pregnant female is an easy and “must kill” target. no new generation. sad story of certain human beings.

  • Darlene Abbott

    Please stop killing our Wolve they belong to our World. We need them to keep the Earth healthy.they don’t need managing by us nature will do the managing .God created everything with a purpose and its not for us to judge what that purpose is.

  • Thank you for drawing attention to this important issue. I think it’s also worth mentioning that there were political and scientific problems with this proposal from the very beginning. Such proposals are supposed to rely on the “best science,” as you note, yet in this case the article that is the basis for the proposal was written by the FWS itself and published in the FWS’s own journal (seemingly resurrected for this very purpose), circumventing the usual peer review process. I describe this and other problems in more detail here:


  • Valentina Gambino

    Beautiful article! Thank you Andrew Rosenberg and thanks to Gary Krupnicki too !
    I love” Wolves magnificent creatures” ❤

  • dick butters

    These wolves are gray wolves. There are 10’s of thousands of them in canada,alaska and other areas like russia. Gray wolves as a species are not and never have been an endangered species. Giving some of them an endangered species listing just because they are in the U.S. is a fraud. Anyone who says the species is endangered is a liar. The wolves in the U.S. could walk back into canada and be shot as vermin.

    • Brett

      Maybe we would like some of the wolves to be able to live in the US. Go back to the 19th century.

      • Thanks all. Obviously wolves and endangered species interest a lot of people. The Endangered Species Act is, as I noted, a last resort for protecting wildlife and plants and their critical habitat. It is not a matter of whether any gray wolves exist anywhere that is the determinant, but that distinct population segments (genetic strains, individual populations in particular areas) as defined in the rules and law are protected. And these determinations can only be science based, so lets make sure the science process has full integrity.

    • Patty Fitzpatrick

      Back in 1999 wolves were a endangered species. I don’t think all the scientists that were needed to put them on the list were wrong. They were endangered and still are. Wolves currently are only in about 10 states and before man killed almost all of them they were all of the west and Midwest.

  • Roxana

    Thank you for providing an unbiased explanation to this important issue. There are very extrange reasons surrounding the delisting of wolves. I found this other article on the politics behind the delisting of wolves. It’s disturbing how science is completely leftout when it comes to managing the wolf population.


  • I am a wolf owner and lover!!
    They were here befor us.
    And they will be after us.
    As long as there are people
    Like me.!!!!

  • Kirk Robinson

    Succinct, cogent and true. Thank you Andrew Rosenberg.