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Sylvia Fallon’s Blog

Stacking the science? Fish and Wildlife Service's gray wolf peer review process

Sylvia Fallon

Posted August 8, 2013

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I am currently at a scientific conference where I just gave a talk on the importance of scientists engaging in the public process through which the government uses scientific information to inform policy. In addition to working on such policy questions directly, a big part of what I do is outreach to the scientific community to encourage the primary scientists to weigh in on policy proposals in order to make sure that our wildlife management policies are based on the best available science.  For the most part, scientists are eager to engage, but occasionally there are some that are hesitant to get involved in policy for fear of any professional backlash.

A decision today by the Fish and Wildlife Service to exclude three of the nation’s leading wolf experts from the Service’s peer review process demonstrates exactly why scientists are often hesitant to engage.  Earlier this year, a draft of the Service’s proposal to delist wolves nationally was leaked to the press. In an effort to get the Service to reconsider issuing the proposal a group of the leading experts on wolf biology wrote a letter to the Service explaining their concerns with the proposal, stating that they disagreed with the Service’s evaluation of the underlying science – much of which relied on these scientist’s own research. 

Because of this act of public service, Fish and Wildlife is now excluding those scientists from their peer review of the proposal, ostensibly because the scientists have already expressed an opinion about the proposal – and, perhaps not coincidentally, one that is critical of it.  Making public comments on a proposal is not, in fact, grounds for excluding an expert from peer review according to the guidelines the Service is supposed to follow.  This exclusion is particularly notable because the scientists the Service excluded were identified by an independent contractor, who was charged with gathering together an appropriate pool of peer reviewers – the Service then selectively vetoed these scientists from their list.

The truth is that these are the very scientists that the Service needs to hear from most and by excluding them the Service will be stacking their cards towards a more favorable review of their proposal.  Let’s not kid around – they know that, which makes one wonder if that’s why they are doing it in the first place.

8/11 UPDATE:  You can listen to an interview with one of the excluded scientists here.

Also, you can Take Action by sending a message to the Fish and Wildlife Service by clicking here.

8/12 UPDATE: The E&E is reporting that the Fish and Wildlife Service has halted the selection of scientists for its peer review following reports of the exclusion of these scientists - having determined that such actions did not meet the standard of their own peer review policies. Here is another article in the LA Times.

            gray wolf

Photo by rwarrin via flickr.

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Andrea BowenAug 8 2013 10:16 PM

Pros and cons to each issue must be addressed, without it we are in socialism

Kirk RobinsonAug 9 2013 01:02 AM

"The truth is that these are the very scientists that the Service needs to hear from most and by excluding them the Service will be stacking their cards towards a more favorable review of their proposal. Let’s not kid around – they know that, which makes one wonder if that’s why they are doing it in the first place."

I do not wonder about it at all. I am sure of it.

wildlife advocateAug 9 2013 10:32 AM

The idea of peer review is to have unbiased scientists do a careful review of all the info FWS has gathered and weigh in on it. If peer reviewers have already made up their minds before looking at the information what good are they.

More realistically most people who follow the issue know the backgrounds of at least two of these three scientists. Besides being scientists they are strongly partisan advocates, their impartiality is severely compromised. By choosing to enter the political sphere years ago they relinquished any chance of ever being taken as anything other than the political advocates for the gray wolf.

The letter they signed on to was a thumb in the eye of the FWS. They addressed it to the new boss of the person they should have been writing to. Without knowing which if any of the signatories were on the review process FWS asked that none of them be included, and rightly so.

Ultimately the status of the gray wolf will be litigated, and appealed, decisions will be made by judges not scientists. There is a very good chance the ESA itself will be modified as a result of this single species, and of orgs such as the NRDC.

wildlifescientistAug 9 2013 11:54 AM

"wildlifeadvocate", the FWS strategy actually violates standard peer review processes. A peer review is not a jury, you want experts, not people who have never been exposed to an issue. The OMB and NAS policies read in part:

"Balance. While expertise is the primary consideration, reviewers should also be selected to represent a diversity of scientific perspectives relevant to the subject. On most controversial issues, there exists a range of respected scientific viewpoints regarding interpretation of the available literature. Inviting reviewers with competing views on the science may lead to a sharper, more focused peer review. Indeed, as a final layer of review, some organizations (e.g., the National Academy of Sciences) specifically recruit reviewers with strong opinions to test the scientific strength and balance of their reports.

"Potential sources of bias are not necessarily disqualifying for purposes of committee service.
Indeed, it is often necessary, in order to ensure that a committee is fully competent, to appoint
members in such a way as to represent a balance of potentially biasing backgrounds or
professional or organizational perspectives…

Jason KeedyAug 9 2013 11:49 PM

This is an example of FWS being the tool, the pawn, the puppet of Big Agri and Big Cattle. There is no excuse for shuttling out those who have the greatest range of expertise on the subject. Wildlife Advocate claims that the 3 scientists relinquished their credibility and that they were "advocates." What a laugh riot! I think Wildlife is the real partison here. The scientists did their research and their conclusions ran counter to the false narrative that the corporate-appeasing FWS tries to force down our throats. Thay doesn't mean that they themselves are advocates.

James BartonAug 10 2013 11:21 AM

I agree with Jason. Until corporate money's influence in elections and bill formation is severely reduced or eliminated, we will continue to have Neanderthal actions and outcomes from our bought-off FWS.
How sad that the leaders the people elect don't act on this issue. Oversight? What a joke. Thank you to everyone in the NRDC for your most important work. And thank you for this post, Sylvia.

Gazelle BirdAug 10 2013 11:35 AM

LISTEN to the Scientists.... SAVE our precious wolves.... Simple as that... !!!

Barbara H. JensenAug 10 2013 11:58 AM

Have consideration for not only the wolves but also for the scientific community.

We are all watching the fiasco you are perpetrating by trying to decimate the wolf population.

Please do the right thing, listen to the scientists, and keep our wolves healthy and plentiful.

Margo TraceyAug 10 2013 12:21 PM

If the FWS is not going to allow the viewpoints of the scientific community to weigh in on this important matter, there needs to be a public debate in which all sides can be heard. Wolves in the U.S. do not belong to the FWS. They belong to all of us and I would like to have a say in what happens to them! There is a lot more at stake here than the simple pleasure of viewing these magnificent creatures by vacationers. Wolves are apex predators that make a profoundly positive impact on the ecosystem in terms of tree and foliage growth, habitat for scores of smaller species, and food supply for scavenger species including bears, eagles, and numerous others. Why do so many people simply trust the FWS?

francisco naredoAug 10 2013 01:25 PM

no mas muertes de animales

Cora WhitmoreAug 10 2013 01:33 PM

Please listen to the scientists who could contribute essential information in this situation! It is unconscionable and a deep wrong to exclude their voices. It is also unconscionable and a deep and tragic wrong to destroy the wolf population in the interests of any human endeavor, no matter how important that may seem in the short run. Please consider the option of cease-fire upon the wolf population. They are beings as sacred as we are. Please allow all voices to be heard, including the scientists who may disagree with you.

Betty Quinlan-SheldonAug 10 2013 02:14 PM

Those who wish to have no concern for our natural wildlife in general and especially where these endangered wolves are concerned are selfish, self centered individuals who only care about their own gratifications. they have no concern of the long term effects of their behaviors.
I have concerns that these peoplewho are intent on destroying the wolves are in the Deep pockets of a few!!
The scientists should be included to present their information. I am VERY disappointed with our federal government re this, i thought this administration was more environmentally friendly!!

Amanda FarrisAug 10 2013 02:46 PM

Please listen to the scientists. Do not dismiss them because they do not agree with you. Listen to everyone involved before making such a decision.

ms..phelpsAug 10 2013 05:33 PM

It seems that the organizations guidelines have been violated, first of all. Secondly, an "independent contractor", in otherwords an unknown entity has made a decision that is not within that persons realm of authority. This issue should be appealed and should be revisited and be dealt with in a strickly academic parameter insofar as we are dealing with our own environment.

Sabri IpekAug 10 2013 06:21 PM

It is very strange that FWS is allowed to have a peer review of a policy on weather to exclude a species from Endangered Species Act. Isn't the ESA supposed to protect all species? Who are we to decide which species live and which ones die? How can FWS be allowed to play God?
Why don't we ask the wolves if they want to be exterminated so the farmers and ranchers can have a peace of mind. This is not even about killing the animals which caused some harm. This is preemptive massacre, just in case if a ranch animal may be attacked by wolves in the future.
I think the justice would be served if one day the human population went down to 2,500 and some other species were deciding weather we were too many and if they should exterminate us completely.

Ray Van OstranAug 10 2013 07:37 PM

The politicians have already been bought and paid for. What else can we expect? Money talks.

Mary Katherine Stillwell-MartinAug 11 2013 02:11 AM

When will this selfishness, greed, and ignorance end?

We the people have a voice. We do not turn this planet over to the few to dictate how it should be run or controlled.

Our stewardship and respect of all living beings is our representation of our Humanity.

All beings have the right to live as they were meant to live. Killing any species is killing our self and our planet.

Every creature has it's purpose and the few who believe that they have the right to decide that one species has outlived that purpose is only arrogant.

The killing of the Wolf is simply "Murder", and the Murder of any species will only bring about our own demise.

When the planets structures die we die. Not a one of us is separate from everything else.

This has to stop NOW!

paul DaviesAug 13 2013 05:31 AM

Again, its all about the govt blasting it through no matter what the PEOPLE say and in my eyes its just a continuance of wiping out wolves full stop. Damn authorities must remember.....THE PEOPLE put them there to work for THE PEOPLE not the other way around. I say again, time for sheeple to wake up and change their form of governance.......Personally, I don't bow to man-law if I feel they in the wrong........!! The PEOPLE are like sheep and are happy to be rounded up by Fed sheepdogs, wolves like me and other FREE THINKERS wont !! I support the freedom of my brother wolves everywhere. STOP KILLING WOLVES !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

lesley grahamAug 13 2013 08:03 AM

It seems as though some sections of the federal government are just stupid. I'd love to know who paid and how much to have that happen.

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