Designated Spokesperson Required for Polar Bear Travels

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) email directive instructs its Alaskan employees who request travel not to discuss polar bears, sea ice, or climate change unless they are explicitly authorized to do so. The email and its accompanying sample memorandums, dated March 2, 2007, outline a formulaic process for travel approval which includes designating an "official spokesman" who understands "the Administration's position on these issues."1 

These restrictive administrative procedures followed a December 2006 announcement that the FWS will consider listing the polar bear for protection under the Endangered Species Act.2

The memo, which was sent under the heading "Foreign Travel – New Requirement – Please Review and Comply, Importance: High," reads:

"Please be advised that all foreign travel requests (SF 1175 requests) and any future travel requests involving or potentially involving climate change, sea ice, and/or polar bears will also require a memorandum from the Regional Director to the Director indicating who'll be the official spokesman on the trip and the one responding to questions on these issues, particularly polar bears, including a statement of assurance that these individuals understand the Administration's position on these issues."3

This cover note was accompanied by two sample memorandums which were to be used as guides for travel "justifications." In the first memo, a scientist will explicitly limit all discussion of polar bears to human interactions with them.  The second set of memos shows that the original travel notification was revised to include an agency spokesperson to accompany the scientist.  All the memos contain the words "[the scientist] understands the administration's position on climate change, polar bears, and sea ice and will not be speaking on or responding to these issues."4

The email and sample memos were leaked to Deborah Williams, president of Alaska Conservation Solutions and a former Interior Department official under the Clinton Administration, who provided them to The New York Times. Williams described the memos as "a gag order" and added that in her experience with the FWS, "a memo like this is truly inconceivable."4

Officials at the Department of the Interior and the FWS have defended the memos. Fish and Wildlife Director H. Dale Hall has said that "these memoranda could have been better worded" but that requiring scientists to adhere to a strict agenda at conferences was "a longstanding practice."6 However, it is unclear whether the memos only apply to official delegations, which do frequently have a political component, or if they extend to scientific meetings and working groups.

Representatives Bart Gordon (D-TN), chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, and Brad Miller (D-NC), chairman of the investigations and oversight committee, requested all documents relevant to these memos from Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. Their letter condemns what "appears to be the latest effort by the Bush Administration to block a full and free discussion of issues relating to climate change by the scientific community."7

The FWS is also under fire for the scope of its preliminary research towards the polar bear endangered species listing. The proposed listing was prompted by a lawsuit from the National Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Greenpeace, who hope to use the listing to force the United States to move to restrict the release of greenhouse gases.8

The greatest threat to the polar bear is the rapid and dramatic decline in Arctic sea ice. As the FWS notes, "any significant changes in the abundance, distribution, or existence of sea ice would have profound effects on all stages of the animal's life cycle."9 This rapid decline in sea ice is attributed to earlier spring melt, later fall freezing and overall thinner ice; these are all consequences of global climate change.

However, Kempthorne's December announcement of the polar bear's proposed listing explicitly excludes an analysis of climate change in the research, claiming "that analysis is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act review process."10 In a May hearing by the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) characterized this limitation as "shortsighted" and compared it to ignoring clear cutting trees in an endangered bird's habitat.11

1. Internal FWS email and memoranda. March 2, 2007. Obtained by UCS from Deborah Williams, President of Alaska Conservation Solutions.
2. U.S. Department of the Interior.
Interior Secretary Kempthorne announces proposal to list polar bears as threatened under Endangered Species Act. Dec 27, 2006. Accessed July 10, 2007.
3. Internal FWS email and memoranda.
4. Internal FWS email and memoranda.
5. Kay, Jane. US accused of silencing experts on polar bears, climate change; scientists told not to speak officially at conferences. The San Francisco Chronicle. March 9, 2007.
6. Barringer, Felicity. Protocol is cited in limiting scientists' talks on climate. The New York Times. March 9, 2007.
7. Eilperin, Juliet. Inquiry sought on agency memo about polar bears, climate change. The Washington Post. March 10, 2007.
8. National Resources Defense Council.
Judgment day set for polar bears: US government to decide on Endangered Species Act protection for polar bears by Dec 27, 2006. June 28, 2006.
9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Frequently asked questions: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to list polar bears as a threatened species.
10. U.S. Department of the Interior. Interior Secretary Kempthorne announcement
11. Committee on Natural Resources. Oral remarks of Rep. Jay Inslee. Endangered Species Act: Politics or Science? May 9, 2007.

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