Science Undermined at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Aug 2, 2008

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.

In several recent cases at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), a branch of the Department of the Interior, Bush administration officials have demonstrated a serious disregard for scientific integrity by suppressing or distorting research by government scientists or contractors.


Distorting Scientific Knowledge on Florida Panthers70

According to an FWS biologist, officials at the agency have knowingly used flawed science in the agency's assessment of the endangered Florida panther's habitat and viability in order to facilitate proposed development in southwest Florida.

Andrew Eller, Jr., a biologist who has worked at the FWS for 17 years, charges that agency officials have knowingly inflated data about panther population viability and minimized assessments of the panthers' habitat needs71 and, under the Bush administration, have been unwilling to correct inaccurate science that underlies habitat assessment practices. In frustration over the situation, Eller has recently filed a legal complaint against the government. Eller, who has worked for the past decade in Florida's Panther Recovery Program, stated recently, "I could no longer tolerate the scientific charade in which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are trying to pretend that the Florida panther is not in jeopardy."72

Among the charges in Eller's complaint is the fact that FWS assessments have inflated estimates of Florida panther populations by erroneously assuming that all known panthers are breeding adults, discounting juvenile, aged, and ill animals. In addition, Eller charges, the FWS has knowingly minimized assessments of the panther's habitat needs by equating daytime habitat use patterns (when the panther is at rest) with nighttime habitat use patterns (when the panther is most active).73

These serious errors in the science that guided agency actions were identified by members of a science advisory subteam impaneled by the FWS in 1999 to help develop a habitat conservation strategy for the panther. The 2002 Draft Landscape Conservation Strategy,74 based on the subteam's work, contains contradictory material due to disagreements about the validity of existing panther literature.75 Notably in this case, an independent four-member Scientific Review Team (SRT), convened by FWS in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, unanimously confirmed and documented these and other serious errors in panther literature used by the agency and urged that they be corrected.76

Jane Comiskey, a researcher at the University of Tennessee and one of eight outside experts on the subteam, is concerned that FWS has not yet allowed the subteam to incorporate peer-review and SRT comments that would resolve the contradictions in the Draft Landscape Conservation Strategy. "We were convened to deliver a peer-reviewed document to FWS, and until we are allowed to incorporate review comments," Comiskey contends, "we will not have done the job we were called upon to do by the federal government."77

Meanwhile, Eller asserts, the FWS has knowingly continued to disseminate the inaccurate information. As stated in Eller's legal complaint, "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's policy contends that no development project in southwest Florida constitutes jeopardy for the panther; the agency is simply relying on science that they know has been discredited."78

As Comiskey notes, "An agency charged with using the best available science to protect panthers should not object to correcting known errors. Panther recovery is a well-funded program with a world-class capture team, dedicated field biologists, a wealth of accumulated data, and strong public support. There's no reason not to get the science right. There are legitimate interests that conflict with those of panthers, but policy channels are provided to resolve those conflicts, outside the context of science."79

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Suppressing Analyses on Bull Trout Habitat

Officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service censored an analysis of the economics of protecting the bull trout, a threatened trout species in the Pacific Northwest, publishing only the costs associated with protecting the species and deleting the report's section analyzing the economic benefits. Furthermore, while the benefits of protecting the bull trout were deleted from the economic analysis, the costs associated with this species' protection were inflated.80 An exaggerated cost analysis and a deleted benefits analysis essentially give the FWS the economic justification, under the ESA, to disregard scientific information when designating critical habitat for the endangered bull trout. 81

As part of a 2003 court settlement, the FWS was ordered to develop a plan designating critical habitat in the Pacific Northwest for bull trout,82 which has been listed as a threatened species under the ESA since 1998. In conjunction with this effort, the FWS contracted Bioeconomics Inc., a Missoula, Montana-based consulting firm, to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of bull trout recovery in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

The firm's peer-reviewed research determined that protecting bull trout and its habitat in the Columbia and Klamath river basins will cost $230 million to $300 million over the next decade, costs associated with adverse effects upon hydropower, logging, and highway construction. The study also reported $215 million in economic benefits associated with a restored bull trout fishery.83

When officials at the FWS released the report, however, they deleted 55 pages of the analysis outlining the economic benefits of bull trout recovery.84 The censorship spurred an anonymous FWS employee to leak a copy of the deleted chapter to a Montana-based environmental group, which then released it to The Missoulian, a Montana daily newspaper. Upon questioning from the press, Diane Katzenberger, an information officer in the FWS regional office in Denver, told a reporter that the censorship did not occur in either the Denver or Portland regional FWS offices but rather "was a policy decision made at the Washington level."85

Chris Nolin, chief of the division of conservation and classification in the Washington, DC FWS office, told the press that the benefits analysis was cut because its methodology was discouraged by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).86 However, similar benefits analyses have been released by the Bush administration. In February 2003, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency used similar techniques that showed $113 billion in economic benefits over 10 years would result from implementation of the Bush administration's 2003 Clear Skies Act.87

Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the group that helped bring the incident to light, stated that contrary to the contention of some Bush administration officials, the methodology of the benefits analysis is largely based on solid economic projections of income from sport fishing. Despite a public request, the full economic analysis has not been publicly released by the FWS.

The decision whether and where to designate critical bull trout habitat must be made by September 2004.88 It is not yet clear whether the FWS will use the incomplete economic analysis to limit critical habitat below what is scientifically justified, but the stage is clearly set for such an outcome.89

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Misrepresenting Scientific Knowledge on Rare Swans

According to documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, as well as testimony from consulting scientists, the director of the FWS based decisions concerning the status of rare trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator)90 on a scientifically flawed, report that lacked outside peer review91 and seriously misrepresented another study.92

In response to a petition by conservationists to list the population of "tri-state" trumpeter swans (a distinct population that breeds in the Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho) as threatened or endangered under the ESA, Director Steve Williams, an appointee of President Bush, ruled in January 2003 that the swans did not constitute a "distinct population segment" and were therefore ineligible for ESA protection.

Tri-state Rocky Mountain trumpeter swans—North America's largest waterfowl—constitute the only breeding population of trumpeter swans that survives in the lower 48 states, where this species was once ubiquitous. Some environmentalists and ornithologists have sought since 200093 to protect the tri-state trumpeter swans under the ESA. Migrating tri-state trumpeters, which resemble the smaller and more plentiful tundra swans, over-winter in Utah and are virtually always killed during the tundra swan hunt. If trumpeter swans were designated as a threatened species, the FWS would be forced to halt the popular swan hunting season in Utah. In response to these organizations' efforts, the FWS produced a document, devoid of peer review and contrary to the preponderance of scientific analysis,94 that argues that the tri-state Rocky Mountain trumpeter swans do not constitute a "distinct population segment" but are actually part of a much larger population of trumpeter swans in Canada and Alaska.95 As a result, the FWS avoided an ESA listing, and tri-state trumpeter swans continue to be killed during the Utah hunt.

To support its ruling, the agency also cited an earlier study of the tri-state swan population completed for the agency in 1987.96 However, the study's principal author, Ruth (Gale) Shea, stated in a March 2003 letter to the FWS that the agency seriously misinterpreted her study.97 Shea, a wildlife biologist and expert on the Rocky Mountain trumpeters, explains that her research found the tri-state population of trumpeter swans was notable for its reproductive isolation. "To date," Shea notes, "there are no data indicating that pairing with Canadian trumpeters is likely or that Canadian trumpeters will abandon their natal areas and fill in vacant tri-state breeding habitat as the tri-state population declines."98 Nonetheless, Shea says, the FWS used her study in part to argue the precise opposite in support of the agency's ruling that the tri-state trumpeters are not a distinct population segment.99

Following FWS Director Steve Williams' denial of protection to the tri-state trumpeter swans in January 2003, an organization named PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) filed a formal complaint,100 which requested that Williams review the agency's ruling and its use of scientific information in the listing determination. PEER's request was denied and they filed an appeal.

To reach his decision after PEER's appeal, Williams convened a scientific panel to review the matter. The panel's assessment, made available only after a Freedom of Information Act request, unanimously recommended that Williams grant the appeal, concurring with the complaint that the agency's policy ought not have been based upon a non-peer reviewed document. As the panel members put it, "[T]his panel concludes that the Dubovsky-Cornely paper lacks the objectivity demanded by the IQA [Information Quality Act] because it was not subjected to any clearly documented quality assurance process, such as independent peer review."101

In a March 2004 letter to PEER,102 Williams agreed to allow the regional FWS office to peer review the controversial internal paper upon which the agency's trumpeter swan policy is based. But, at the same time, Williams overruled his panel's unanimous recommendation and denied the appeal, continuing to refuse protection to the tri-state trumpeter swan population in spite of the overwhelming evidence that the agency's policy had been based on inaccurate, misinterpreted, and highly questionable scientific information.103

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70 This section was updated after further consultation with Jane Comiskey on July 16, 2004. Original text is available by request from [email protected].
71 Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). 2004. Andrew J. Eller and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility v. Department of Interior. May 4. Available online at
72 Author interview with Andrew Eller, May 2004.
73 PEER. 2004. Available online at
74 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, South Florida Ecosystem Office. 2002. “Draft Florida Panther Landscape Conservation Strategy.” Vero Beach, Florida.
75 Author communication with Jane Comiskey via email, July 2004.
76 For review panel assessment, see Beier, P., M. R. Vaughan, M. J. Conroy, and H. Quigley. 2003. “An Analysis of Scientific Literature Related to the Florida Panther.” Final Report. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Tallahassee, Florida. Available online at
77 Author communication with Jane Comiskey via email, July 2004.
78 Author interview with Andrew Eller, May 2004. Also see PEER 2004. Available online at
79 Author communication with Jane Comiskey via email, July 2004.
80 Much of the cost analysis included money already spent in association with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing as well as money spent on critical habitat protection for other listed species that occur in the same habitats identified for the bull trout, as noted in the FWS press release, “Draft Economic Analysis of Critical Habitat Proposal for Bull Trout in the Columbia and Klamath River Basins Released for Public Comment,” April 5, 2004. Available online at As the press release states, “The draft economic analysis does not separate costs associated with the designation of critical habitat from those already incurred by the listing of bull trout in the Columbia and Klamath basins in 1998.” The press release also acknowledges, “Most of the estimated cost already is occurring due to the listing of bull trout and protective measures already in place for listed salmon and steelhead.”
81 The ESA permits the FWS to disregard scientific information in making critical habitat designation decisions under certain circumstances. Sec. 4(b)(2) of the ESA states: “The Secretary shall designate critical habitat, and make revisions therein…on the basis of the best scientific data available and after taking into consideration the economic impact, and any other relevant impact, of specifying any particular area as critical habitat. The Secretary may exclude any area from critical habitat if he determines that the benefits of such exclusion outweigh the benefits of specifying such area as part of the critical habitat, unless he determines, based on the best scientific and commercial data available, that the failure to designate such area as critical habitat will result in the extinction of the species concerned.” [Emphasis ours.]
82 See Friends of the Wild Swan v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 945 F. Supp 1388; 81 F. 3d 168; 12 F. Supp. 1121; 910 F. Supp 1500; 966 F. Supp. 1002.
83 FWS. 2004. “Draft Economic Analysis of Critical Habitat Proposal for Bull Trout in the Columbia and Klamath River Basins Released for Public Comment.” Press release. April 5. Available online at
84 The censored version of the report as released by FWS is available online at
85 As quoted in Devlin, S. 2004. “Economic benefits of recovery omitted from bull trout report,” The Missoulian. April 16. Available online at
86 As quoted in Harden, B. 2004. “Report condemned as one-sided: government cut out benefits of saving threatened trout,” San Francisco Chronicle. April 17.
87 See EPA. 2003. “Clear Skies Act, 2003, Technical Support Package, Section B: Human Health and Environmental Benefits.” February. Available online at See also Harden, B. 2004. “Report condemned as one-sided: government cut out benefits of saving threatened trout,” San Francisco Chronicle. April 17.
88 The draft economic analysis and the FWS proposal to designate critical habitat in the Columbia and Klamath basins were open for public comment until May 5, 2004.
89 The FWS has initiated other processes that could avoid protecting the bull trout. An April 13, 2004 press release announced that the agency would conduct a five-year review of the bull trout listing (it was first listed in 1998). While this review process cannot derail the court-dictated decision on critical habitat designations, it could lead to change of classification or delisting for the species, and puts the process to finalize Recovery Plans for bull trout populations on hold. The full text of the news release is available online at
90 See PEER. 2004. “Fish and Wildlife Director Overrules His Own Scientific Panel; Allows Continued Hunting of Rare Trumpeter Swans.” Press release. April 13. Available online at
91 See Dubovsky, J. and J. Cornely. 2003. “Trumpeter Swan Survey of the Rocky Mountain Population, U.S. Breeding Segment, Fall 2002,” Lakewood, CO: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Birds and State Programs, Mountain-Prairie Region. October. Available online at
92 Gale, R.S., E.O Garton, and I.J. Ball. 1987. “The History, Ecology and Management of the Rocky Mountain Population of Trumpeter Swans.” Unpublished report. Missoula, MT: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit.
93 On August 25, 2000, The Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Fund for Animals, and others petitioned the FWS to designate the tri-state swan population a Distinct Population Segment and list it as threatened or endangered.
94 Gale, R.S. et al. 1987. See also PEER. 2001. Swan Dive: Trumpeter Swan Restoration Trumped by Politics. White Paper. Washington, DC: PEER. August. See also Shea, R., executive director, Trumpeter Swan Society. 2003. Letter (with scientific citations) to Steve Williams, FWS director. March 23. Available online at
95 Dubovsky and Cornely, 2002.  
96 Gale, R.S. et al. 1987. See also PEER. 2003. “Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) v. Department of Interior.” May 28. Available online at
97 Author interview with Ruth (Gale) Shea, May 2004.
98 As quoted in Shea, R., executive director, Trumpeter Swan Society. 2003. Letter (with scientific citations) to Steve Williams, FWS director. March 23. Available online at
99 Ibid.
100 PEER. 2003. “Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) v. Department of Interior.” May 28. Available online at
101 Ashe, D., S. Haseltine, R. Bennet, FWS. 2004. Undated memo to FWS Director Steve Williams regarding the PEER appeal of FWS ruling on the designation of the tri-state population of trumpeter swans as a distinct population segment. Released June 4, 2004.
102 Williams, S., FWS. 2004. Correspondence to Eric Wingerter, PEER. In his verdict on the matter, Williams states that the agency’s dissemination of information, including the Dubovsky-Cornely paper, “met the agency’s standard for objectivity.” March 26. Available online at
103 Notably, until the review panel’s assessment was released in June 2004 under a Freedom of Information Act request, Williams even refused to make the names of the review panelists or their finding public. Williams claims that the appeal decision was his to make as director of the agency—a statement no one disputes. But it remains unclear whether Williams can claim any scientific basis for his decision as required by the ESA.


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