UCS Blog - Endangered Species Act (text only)

Scientists Find Serious Flaws in Proposal to Delist Endangered Gray Wolf

Photo: Eric Kilby/Flickr

According to a five-member peer-review panel, the administration’s proposal to delist the endangered gray wolf (Canis lupus) from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is chalk full of scientific errors that misrepresent the scientific consensus regarding wolf conservation and taxonomy. One member of the panel even said that the proposed rule seems as if it were written with a predetermined conclusion to delist the endangered gray wolf, and then the administration cherry picked evidence they thought supported their conclusion. “It looks like they decided to delist and then they compiled all the evidence that they thought supported that decision. It simply doesn’t support the decision,” said Adrian Treves, an environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin. Indeed, the 245-page report provided to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) by the peer-review panel says that the evidence doesn’t support the administration’s conclusion to rollback protections for the gray wolf across the lower-48.

The peer-review process at FWS

Peer-review is the bedrock of publishing scientific results. Scientists write up the results of their study in a paper that is then anonymously reviewed by peers in their field. The review ensures that the questions scientists are asking are addressed by the right methods and that results are interpreted correctly. If one, it only takes one, peer reviewer finds a major fault in your study, and the editor of the journal agrees that the fault is legitimate and should be addressed, then that fault must be addressed before the results can be published. This may mean further analysis of data, conducting more experiments, or if the scientist(s) cannot address the fault then a rejection of publication of results. According to the recent peer-review of the FWS’s proposal to delist the gray wolf from the ESA, the proposal contained several scientific errors. This means that the administration may address the errors elucidated in the peer-review and produce a proposal that is in-line with the best available science or retract the proposal altogether.

Science-based agencies in our government have peer-review processes in place, and these are especially important for implementing policies that are required by law to be informed by science. The ESA is one such policy that requires decisions to list or delist a species to/from endangered status to be based solely on the best available scientific and commercial data. In 2016, the FWS revised their peer-review policy after encouragement from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Project Coyote, and a letter signed by nearly a thousand conservation biology experts across the country. The new policy entrusts the scientific evaluation of species listing and de-listing determinations to an external committee of scientists who are best suited to assess the scientific evidence and make a public recommendation to the agency, based solely on the scientific and commercial data available, as the ESA requires. The new policy also took additional steps to make the process more transparent by making the peer-review documents available to the public, as well as the conflicts of interest forms from the peer-review panel. The updated policy strengthened the process and it was a step in the right direction for science by FWS.

The Gray Wolf’s Controversial History

The gray wolf has long been a controversial species regarding its endangered status. In 2011, ESA protections were removed for wolves in the Northern Rockies by Congress – the first time ever that the legislative body delisted an endangered species. The scientific community largely agreed that this rollback of protections was not based on the best available science.

Since the gray wolf’s protections under ESA were removed in the Northern Rockies, interest groups have moved to have the wolves’ protections removed across most of the lower-48. The FWS submitted a proposal for this delisting in 2013, but an independent peer-review as well as a majority of public comments against the proposed delisting delayed the agency’s decision. The Trump administration proposed to move the delisting of the wolf across the lower-48 in March, 2019. But the scientific consensus remains the same – the gray wolf still needs protections afforded to it by the ESA.

Science Says Protect the Wolves

Treves is concerned that if protections are lifted for the gray wolf then illegal poaching will increase and this could decimate the population like has happened in the past, a concern that Treves has published on previously. Rancher and hunters continue to express concern that protections for wolves will increase their population such that the carnivore will annihilate stocks of prey (e.g., elk, sheep, cows). But there is no scientific evidence that supports killing predators makes livestock safer. In fact, in some cases it seems that killing predators may actually worsen the problem.

The peer-review is in and the experts say that the Trump administration’s proposal to delist the endangered gray wolf is not in line with the scientific evidence. This means that the administration should throw the delisting proposal in the trash because the ESA requires delisting decisions to be based solely on the best available scientific and commercial data. If they move ahead with the proposal as-is…well…seems like that would be illegal.

Photo: Eric Kilby/Flickr

1,399 Endangered Species Latest Casualty as David Bernhardt’s Siege on Science Continues at Interior Department

The San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis) is but one the 1,399 species whose population is at risk of being lost due to pesticide exposure. Photo: USFWS/Flickr

On Thursday, March 28, the Senate will hold a hearing to advance David Bernhardt’s nomination for Secretary of the Interior. This is not good news for the Department of the Interior, its federal scientists and their work, or the people, public lands, and endangered species that are directly affected by the agency’s decisions.

Over the past two years, Bernhardt has played a prominent role in sidelining science in policy decisions at the Department of the Interior (DOI), first as assistant Interior Secretary and then as acting secretary following Zinke’s resignation in December. We documented these attacks on science in our December report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, and continue to monitor other anti-science activities that have taken place under Bernhardt’s watch.

The Senate should do its due diligence to ensure that Bernhardt is held accountable for these attacks on science, including at Thursday’s hearing. The American people deserve better than what Bernhardt has demonstrated so far as a DOI leader: a failure to address climate change, diminishment of public lands, silenced federal scientists, and further losses of threatened and endangered species across the country.

How egregious are Bernhardt’s attacks on science? Here are three that stand out, including one that just came to light.

Bernhardt puts more than 1,200 endangered species at risk

On Wednesday, March 26, the New York Times reported that Bernhardt suppressed a scientific report on risks to endangered species. Documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request provided evidence that Bernhardt’s decision to block the release of a report documenting the threats of three pesticides to endangered species was heavily influenced by the industries who produce those pesticides.

The Cape Sable seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis) sits peacefully among prairie grasses in this photo. The bird species is highly sensitive to indirect spread of pesticides such as chlorpyrifos – scientists say that the species population is in jeopardy. Photo: Brandon Trentler/Flickr

For the report, scientists at the DOI’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) investigated the risks from three pesticides: chlorpyrifos, malathion, and diazinon. The scientists found that two of the pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos, were so toxic that they jeopardized the existence of more than 1,200 endangered species. Currently, 1,663 species are listed as threatened or endangered meaning that these two pesticides alone could be a major culprit behind the decrease in these species’ populations.

These results came to the attention of Bernhardt, who arranged several meetings with top officials at FWS. The report was never released and instead a process was put in motion changing the method by which FWS, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) assess chemical threats to endangered species. Specifically, scientists would no longer be able to consider the indirect—but very real—effects of pesticide exposure to endangered species (e.g., pesticide drift in air or water, contamination of food sources).

The chemical industry has long advocated that federal scientists not consider indirect impacts of pesticide exposure when determining threats to public and environmental health. However, FWS staff noted in their report that there are “Few limits on labels for when and where these pesticides can be used so exposure can be widespread,” and that “These pesticides have been found far from sites of application.”

Staff point to the kit fox as an example of an endangered species population that was nearly wiped out due to indirect impacts. This is because the fox’s food sources were contaminated by pesticides from farming practices in the San Joaquin Valley. If industry changes the process by which risk is assessed biological opinions are formed, farms will no longer be considered as an indirect source of pesticide exposure.

If indirect impacts do cause widespread harm to endangered species, it would not be accounted for and the US would be at risk of losing hundreds of endangered species.

The bald eagle was chosen June 20, 1782 as the emblem of the United States. Bipartisan support of the Endangered Species Act and the listing of the bald eagle as endangered under this legislation helped increase the emblematic species population to a healthy number. Source: Ross Eliott/Flickr

Bernhardt restricts use of science at Interior Department

In one of the most egregious attacks on science that UCS has documented to date, Bernhardt signed an order in September 2018 that immediately restricted the use of science at DOI. The order, known as the “Promoting Open Science” order, requires scientific data to be made publicly accessible. However, some data cannot be made accessible to the public for legal reasons because the release of such data can endanger individuals, rare and threatened species, and culturally or religiously important sites.

The order also requires data used in policy decisions be reproducible. This in effect can exclude important contributions from older studies where raw data is inaccessible. Therefore, the number of scientific studies that can be used to inform policy decisions at the DOI will inevitably go down. Future scientific studies by DOI agencies are likely to be restricted in their scope and methodology, and the order may deter outside scientists from working with DOI agencies, out of fear that confidential information could be released.

This order means science will take a back seat in DOI policies, increase the opportunities for outside influence on agency decisions, and result in policies that are not informed by the best available science, threatening the health and safety of the public and our environment.

This beautiful vernal pool is filled with the yellow wildflower commonly known as Contra Costa Goldfields (Lasthenia conjugens). The endangered wildflower species is one that is at risk of being lost likely because pollinating insects that it depends on are being killed by toxic pesticides. Photo: Kevin Bertolero/Flickr

Bernhardt silences climate change science

On December 22, 2017, Bernhardt quietly issued Secretarial Order 3360, which rescinded multiple policies on climate change and conservation. These changes undercut the Department of Interior’s (DOI) ability to fulfill its mission of conserving and managing the nation’s natural resources.

The order revokes a Departmental Manual chapter on climate change, a Departmental Manual chapter on landscape-scale mitigation policy, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manual section on mitigation, and a 2016 BLM handbook on mitigation. The order additionally directs the head of BLM to reassess the BLM Draft Regional Mitigation Strategy for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and directs BLM to reissue a separate Bush-era guidance on offsite mitigation.

The now-rescinded policies had directed the DOI to take the threat of climate change and its foreseeable effects into account when making decisions. For example, the Departmental Manual chapter on climate change directed that the DOI “will use the best available science to increase understanding of climate change impacts, inform decisionmaking, and coordinate an appropriate response to impacts on land, water, wildlife, cultural and tribal resources, and other assets.”

Climate change is already having impacts across the US. Ignoring and failing to plan for its current and future effects puts America’s public lands, wildlife, and people at unnecessary risk.

Bernhardt is not qualified to run a science-based agency

The Department of the Interior should rely on science to make the best decisions for America’s parks, wildlife, and people. Time and time again, we have seen Bernhardt sideline science in critical DOI decisions. (He is also riddled with extensive conflicts of interest). There is no doubt that he would continue his siege on science if he is confirmed as Interior secretary.

Bernhardt is clearly unqualified to lead a science-based agency that makes decisions that affect so much of the country. Let’s hope the Senate agrees.