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Study says US conservation agency ignored scientific advice

Researchers say politics influenced science in setting the habitat for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus).

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has routinely brushed aside advice from scientific experts when setting critical habitats for endangered species, according to a study published in the July issue of BioScience.

In setting the boundaries of critical habitats, internal FWS scientists are supposed to account for everything from the nesting tendencies of a species to its historical range. A draft habitat is then released for public comment, and a separate panel of outside experts reviews it before the agency sets the final boundaries.

But in a study of 42 critical habitats set between 2002 and 2007, the researchers found that the FWS ignored these reviewers 92% of the time, regardless of whether they recommended adding or subtracting land from the draft habitat boundaries.

“We’re seeing that they routinely ignored the scientific advice,” says Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and a co-author on the study. “It’s a scientific integrity issue.”

The researchers claim that this is the first study to examine government peer review. “Peer review is fundamentally different in a government setting than at a scientific journal,” says Noah Greenwald, a co-author and endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Oregon. “There’s no editor looking at whether they followed the advice of reviewers and whether they have a good explanation for not following it.” Most of the time, the final habitat boundaries did not match the drafts set by the internal scientists. In 81% of the cases, the researchers found, the habitats were cut by more 40% between the draft and final policies.

The FWS says it did not have time to review the study, but issued a short statement, arguing that the agency, in setting boundaries, must consider economic and national security concerns, and not just science. “Scientists may not always agree on the conclusions of a scientific analysis, especially in analyses as complex and challenging as critical habitat designations. In some cases, peer reviewers may disagree; in others, our biologists may not agree with the conclusions of individual peer reviewers.”

Karen Hodges, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna,B. C., agrees that designating critical habitat can be a tricky business. “Here’s a species that you need to protect, and you need to pick how much habitat to protect so it doesn’t go extinct. Good luck with that! That’s hard for species we know about, let alone species with limited data,” she says.

Photo credit: Jim Rorabaugh/USFWS.


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