The whistle-blower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has filed a scientific integrity complaint against the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) because, it says, the agency is excluding grazing data from an ambitious ecological study for political reasons (see their press release).
The Bureau, which manages 1,068,000 square kilometers of the American west, launched the study across the region last year with economic stimulus funding. The study consists of several Rapid Ecoregional Assessments (REAs), including maps of “areas of high conservation value,” and subsequent analyses of how these areas will be affected by four “change agents”, which are: climate change, wildfires, invasive species, and development (both energy development and urban growth).
PEER has posted minutes from an August 2010 workshop for scientists involved with the Colorado Plateau REA in which several people in the room asked that grazing also be included in the list of change agents, pointing out that it was a huge factor in the local ecology and saying that omitting it would be “intellectually dishonest.” But the minutes-taker summarized the comments of Karl Ford, manager of the overall REA project, this way: “Grazing is considered a resource within the agency and with a group of stakeholders and there are litigation worries. BLM fears litigation may put a stop to future REAs, but he wants to get through the mine field and do something meaningful.”
The discussions that followed seemed to center around how grazing data might be included in the assessment without annoying the “stakeholders,” which PEER guesses to be the ranching community — though PEER director Jeff Ruch says they aren’t sure if the ranchers leaned on BLM or if the agency was self-censoring for fear of backlash. The solution arrived at during the meeting amounts to lumping data on grazing by cattle and other livestock in with other kinds of grazing — from game animals to wild horses — presumably thus limiting the negative implication that livestock grazing is hurting the west.
BLM staff say that while grazing is not among the four overarching change agents to be examined at all sites, some sites will look at grazing. “The primary reason that some of the Assessment teams decided not to look at grazing as a change agent is that they concluded that it would be difficult to model the effects of grazing at a regional scale given the available data,” wrote BLM spokesperson Tom Gorey in an email.
Ruch’s response to Gorey’s explanation was a hearty laugh, followed by this: “Grazing is something they have more data on than any other subject. Regional scale data [from the BLM] has just been published by the US Geological Survey. The notion that they don’t have enough information is both laughable and untrue.”
Grazing is undoubtedly a huge agent of change in the American West. Environmentalists as far back as the turn of the last century have complained about overgrazing’s effects on various western ecosystems. John Muir waxed vitriolic about the sheepmen and their charges — which he compared to locusts — in the Sierra Nevada. More recently, ecologists have shown that a history of grazing can alter soil, harm native species, change how often wildfires burn and even how nutrients cycle (for example, see this paper in the Journal of Arid Environments).
At the same time, environmentalists have come to embrace ranchers as the much lesser of two evils when sprawling, low density development threatens open space in the west. This kind of exurban sprawl covers almost a quarter of the continental US, according to a 2006 paper in the journal Rangelands.
Adam Fetcher, A spokesman from the BLM’s parent agency, the Department of Interior, says “this allegation will be reviewed under the standard procedures contained in DOI’s scientific integrity policy.” Fetcher also pointed out that the Department of Interior was the first of the federal government’s science agencies to publish a new scientific integrity policy after Obama asked for such policies to be created back in March 2009. (In September 2010, Nature covered reactions to Interior department’s first draft of its integrity policy.)
Indeed, this is among the first dozen or so complaints filed under the new policy. It is the second for PEER; in July they filed a complaint on behalf of Arctic scientist Charles Monnett, who was let go from his job at another Interior agency for “integrity issues” having to do with his observations of drowned polar bears.
“That complaint is, as we understand it, still under review,” says Ruch. “There is no timeline and no avenue of appeal if we don’t like what they do.” Even more so than the Monnett case, Ruch adds, he will view the outcome of this complaint over the REAs as “as the test of whether Interior’s scientific integrity policy is worth the paper it is written on.”
Photo: US Bureau of Land Management