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Partisan Scientists in Public Service I: The Strange Case of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team

grizscienceResearchers radio-collar an immobilized grizzly in this undated IGBST photo.

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, hereafter the IGBST, was established in 1973 to provide managers and other stakeholders with reliable scientific information relevant to managing Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. The impetus for constituting this research group grew from a period of stormy and often strident controversy arising from a decision by the National Park Service to cut bears off from access to human garbage. The famous grizzly bear researchers, Frank and John Craighead, were on one side, advocating a titrated closure of garbage dumps whereas Park Service managers, led by Glen Cole, were on the other, staunchly supporting a cold turkey approach (follow this link for more on this history).

Without going into excruciating details of this controversy, suffice it to say, blood was probably not literally shed only because of our laws against murderous mayhem. The involved guys hated each other. Or more directly to the point of what follows, all sorts of less than objective emotions and motivations seethed under the covering rubric of objective science, which was freely invoked by all involved.

Grizzly bear science in litigation

Fast forward to around 2005. After more than a decade of political and scientific maneuvering that began in the early 1990s, the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, Chris Servheen, oversaw a bid to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. The population had been listed under the ESA in 1975 because of grave concerns about population viability on the heels of a slaughter resulting from closure of Yellowstone’s garbage dumps. The USFWS released the official Rule to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies in 2007 only to see the Rule overturned in 2009 by Judge Malloy of Montana’s federal District Court, upheld in 2011 by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (see the original ruling here).

Why? Because in a virtually unprecedented move, the Courts serially ruled that the USFWS had disregarded or misrepresented a large body of relevant science. The Courts rarely rule on the substance of the science in matters such as this one; they almost always defer to the expertise of the involved federal agencies, which made these rulings truly remarkable.

More specifically, the District and Appeals Courts both concluded that the USFWS, or more specifically, Chris Servheen, had flubbed or otherwise spun the science regarding the effects of a critically important grizzly bear food: whitebark pine seeds.  A number of more-or-less definitive scientific studies linked birth and death rates of Yellowstone’s grizzlies to the amount of fat-rich pine seeds they had eaten, which mattered all the more because, during the process of judicial review, whitebark pine was being close to functionally extirpated by an unprecedented outbreak of lethal bark beetles driven, in turn, by a warming climate (see this article by Macfarlane et al 2013). The USFWS denied not only the importance of this tree species to grizzlies, but also the magnitude of the tree’s losses.

Interestingly enough, Chris Servheen has a doctorate in wildlife ecology. Moreover, the IGBST scientists at the time, led by Dr. Charles Schwartz, were deeply involved with and fully complicit in, not only putting together the 2007 delisting Rule, but also in crafting court briefs. In other words, ignorance or lack of education can’t be plausibly invoked as an explanation for why the government scientists involved in authoring the 2007 Rule so egregiously misrepresented the relevant science.

Grizzly bear science as politics

So, what followed the Courts’ rulings? Something equally amazing. The USFWS’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, Dr. Servheen, publicly castigated the federal judges, including reference to them in agency meetings and in media interviews as “activist judges with an agenda.” Chris Servheen made additional public statements around this time (and since) to the effect that Yellowstone’s grizzly bears needed to be delisted as part of a strategy to thwart those in Congress who wanted to gut or otherwise dramatically change the ESA (see this blog for some context). In other words, a low-level federal bureaucrat in an administrative agency charged with implementing policy was baldly confessing to playing electoral and legislative politics—paradoxically enough, an “activist bureaucrat.”

This alone should alarm anyone who cares about the integrity of our government. But, of more relevance to my thesis here, Dr. Servheen also publicly stated that his response to the Courts’ rulings would be to simply go back and, in essence, fix the scientific record so as to demonstrate that whitebark pine didn’t matter to Yellowstone’s grizzly bears—as opposed to another alternative he considered, which was to simply damn the Courts and reissue the exact same Rule (for example, see this email and this draft of a USFWS letter to Wyoming’s governor Matt Meade). In other words, he had already decided what any follow-on science would show. This by someone who works for an agency—the USFWS—singled out in virtually every study that’s looked at scientific integrity as being the most prone to subvert science in service of political ends (for example, see this UCS report).

All of this matters to my story because guess who paid for most of the follow-on science? Yep, the USFWS, at the behest of Chris Servheen. And, getting back to where I started, guess who executed all of the paid-for science? Yep, the IGBST, the same guys who helped create the overturned 2007 Rule. And guess who was deeply involved in crafting research questions and reviewing pre-published research results? Yep, Dr. Servheen again (for example, see this IGBST study plan that Dr. Servheen annotated). And guess what all of the resulting science was interpreted to show? Yep, that whitebark pine didn’t matter to Yellowstone’s grizzlies (for example, see this recent paper Van Manen et al 2016). And, finally, guess who produced in unprecedented fashion a white paper summarizing the unpublished new science, timed to serve the purposes of rushing ahead with a new delisting rule? Yep, the IGBST, hand-in-glove with Dr. Servheen (see this more-or-less ecstatic press release by the IGBC).

In fact, the group charged with overseeing management of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears—the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee—voted almost immediately upon receiving the IGBST’s white paper to support a new delisting Rule, which was released by the USFWS in due course during March 2016.

Which is to say, this brief history is one that I would argue provides clear evidence of science corrupted to serve political ends, which can happen even when the involved people have the best of intentions (more on this next week). And the political ends are not hard to divine.

The political imperative

Both the USFWS and politicians and wildlife managers from the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have made clear that they are committed to stripping ESA protections from Yellowstone’s grizzly bears and transferring management authority to the states—no matter what (see this relevant blog). In the process, the USFWS, which has authority over the delisting process, has assiduously ignored any and all who have expressed concerns, including 40 plus Tribes who have demanded that they be consulted. The USFWS seems to be slaved to a narrative wherein they perversely “save” the ESA by removing protections for currently listed species, including Yellowstone’s grizzlies. In contrast, the states seem to be obsessively driven by a largely ideological need to control all wildlife management, coupled with a visceral hostility to any semblance of federal authority.

These diverse motives have produced some pretty strange outcomes, including a pro-delisting op-ed in a regional newspaper co-authored by Dan Ashe, the USFWS Director charged with implementing the ESA, and Matt Meade, Wyoming’s Governor and vitriolic critic of the ESA (see a comment here). As with Ashe’s minion Chris Servheen, this coupling of a federal bureaucrat with an elected official to advance a political agenda should be alarming to anyone who cares about the integrity of our public servants. But my main point is the extent to which the USFWS and the involved states are joined at the hip when it comes to delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies.

Next week…

So, with the stage set, next week I delve into current circumstances that virtually guarantee subversion of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear science. Even though there are other plausible interpretations of the history I summarized above, it is the constellation of factors influencing Yellowstone’s grizzly bear scientists that makes corruption of the scientific endeavor virtually inevitable. Stay tuned.

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David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago. 

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