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After the Divorce: Improving Science at Federal Wildlife Agencies


Jeffrey P. Cohn / Bioscience / RED NOVA / January 28, 2004



As part of a nine-year study of wolves and their prey, a wildlife biologist draws blood from an anesthetized wolf in Alaska's Denali National Park. Such USGS studies aid FWS management of wolves and other species. One problem: Scientists before the "divorce" and since cannot always convince managers or politicians of their studies' value.

Michael Runge and his colleagues from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) got out of their car, hiked the short distance to Chaska Lake near the Minnesota River, and looked around carefully. Here, at the nearly 14,000-acre Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in the southern suburbs of Minneapolis, a floodplain forest of cotton-wood, green ash, and silver maple trees stretches from the riverbanks to the bulrushes and cattails growing in the marshlands along the lake's shallows.

Runge, a USGS research ecologist based at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, was in Minnesota on a cool and drizzly fall day last year to check out Chaska Lake and other sites for possible inclusion in a scientific study. The study will examine about 20 wildlife refuges in the upper Midwest and Northeast. It seeks to help refuge managers determine whether and to what extent adjusting water levels behind impounded wetlands would attract migrating shorebirds, wading birds, waterfowl, and other wildlife.

The study's importance goes beyond helping FWS better manage its 545 wildlife refuges and shedding new light on bird habitats. It represents a new era of scientific research and cooperation between FWS and USGS. It also represents a renewed effort by FWS to rebuild its scientific credibility and to foster research related to the federal wildlife agency's program and management responsibilities.

The government agency shuffle

Only a dozen years ago FWS lost its research arm in a Department of the Interior-wide reorganization that more closely resembled what many current and former agency staffers still call a "bitter divorce." The initial reorganization was undertaken by then- secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to combine all the department's natural resources research in one science agency. Babbitt wanted an agency that could survey plants and animals to identify endangered species before they became "train wrecks" like the northern spotted owl.

In the 1993 reorganization, nearly all of FWS's research scientists, plus those from other Interior agencies and laboratories, were transferred to Babbitt's newly created National Biological Survey (NBS). Two years later, the newly elected Republican Congress, suspicious of federal agents surveying on private lands, refused to fund the Interior secretary's administrative changes, eliminated NBS, and moved its research programs to USGS.

Compounding the bureaucratic effects of the divorce has been a more recent series of controversies with strong political overtones that have embroiled FWS and brought its scientific credentials and reputation into question. On the one hand, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups, some associated with liberal political causes, have accused the Bush administration of manipulating scientific advisory boards to support its policies regarding such controversial issues as abortion, stem cell research, and the environment. FWS has no scientific advisory panels to stack, but scientists are members of its advisory groups on migratory birds and endangered species. In the case of FWS, critics charge that the Bush administration has rewritten or ignored reports by government scientists on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on other issues.

Meanwhile, from the other side of the political divide, conservative congressmen and newspapers accused FWS and other wildlife biologists in 2001 of planting lynx hair in places in the Pacific Northwest where none of the wild cats had been found, so that provisions of the Endangered Species Act could be invoked. Although later investigations by government agencies and outside groups cleared the lynx researchers of all charges beyond failing to follow their study protocol and to adequately inform the study's leaders, the affair and similar controversies raised serious questions about the quality and credibility of scientific research within FWS and other government agencies.

Whatever the merits of these individual controversies, for Steve Williams the lynx case in particular was an eye opener. "That was a pretty dark time for us," says Williams, FWS's director since 2002. "I realized that we had to focus our efforts more on science and the integrity of the scientific process. People were questioning our scientific credentials. It was like we had severe chest pains. We did not suffer a heart attack, but we could not ignore the signals."

That realization by Williams and others both inside and outside FWS led to a grudging acceptance by the agency of the bitter divorce and the end of what Dan Ashe, science advisor to the FWS director, calls a "10-year pout." More important, it led to a closer working relationship between FWS and USGS to ensure that the research needed to support FWS field programs got done. And it led to a reemphasis on science by FWS in an effort to restore the agency's scientific credibility.

Rather than try to recreate a scientific research capability within FWS, however, Williams and Ashe have reached out to USGS and, especially, its biological research division. "It was time to move on," Ashe says. "We need information for our day-to-day management problems. We had expected research to be returned to us. That did not happen. We didn't like it, but the reality is that research lies within USGS. We needed to build a new relationship with them."

Forging alliances

That relationship began with a series of ad hoc meetings in 2003 between Ashe and Sue Haseltine, a former FWS researcher who is now USGS's associate director for biology. "My mission is to supply credible science to the other Interior bureaus," Haseltine says. "I am so glad that we have finally come to this phase of the conversation. We spent far too long talking about where research should sit and not enough on how to craft studies to advance conservation."

The ad hoc meetings culminated in a scientific summit between Williams and Ashe, for FWS, and Charles ("Chip") Groat and Haseltine, for USGS, in the fall of 2003 at FWS's National Conservation and Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. One result: The occasional meetings between Ashe and Haseltine to discuss science and research became regular monthly gettogethers between Williams and Groat, USGS's director, and their staffs. Similar meetings have been held by senior and mid-level managers at the national and regional levels, and by USGS and FWS scientists at the field level.

"We needed to integrate USGS's scientific capabilities with our research needs," Williams says. "I wanted our refuge managers and program directors who have questions about wetlands, for example, to feel comfortable calling their USGS counterparts to ask for help."

Before any of that could happen, however, USGS had to ensure that biological research had a home within an agency known for its work in the geological, geophysical, hydrological, and other physical sciences. "Having biology is the best thing to happen to us," Groat says. "It lets us broaden our mix [of scientific disciplines] and look at things from a system basis. We are constantly looking for ways to get geologists and biologists to work together."

"We were welcomed, despite being the new kids on the block," Haseltine says of the reception former FWS wildlife biologists and ecologists received from USGS's physical scientists. "There was a lot of apprehension and excitement at joining [USGS]. We added another discipline to their research. We made their environmental research more complete."

Groat cites the case of studies done by USGS researchers in Colorado that allowed FWS scientists to learn where migratory and other birds were spending their time by analyzing the chemical content of bird feathers and comparing the findings to chemicals found in soil samples. This new scientific field, dubbed "geobiology," allows researchers to better understand the interactions between living things and their physical environment.

Beyond making environmental research more complete by broadening the range of scientific disciplines, the USGS connection added a stamp of independence and credibility to the studies of former FWS biologists that most had not even thought necessary. "[USGS] is not seen as being as political as the other Interior agencies," says Thomas Franklin, executive director of The Wildlife Society. "It has no direct political intrusion."

Take the cases of opponents of the endangered species program or proponents of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy production. These critics often question the findings of government biologists that oil and gas drilling at the Arctic refuge, for example, will harm wildlife. The critics had long argued that scientists who worked directly for land management and regulatory agencieswould be predisposed to reaching findings that supported their agency's policies and programs.

USGS scientists use side-scan sonar to map the distribution of sand on the bed of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Their findings will help determine how best to manage flows from Glen Canyon Dam to help preserve sandbars that serve as camping beaches and wildlife habitats downstream of the dam. Photograph courtesy of USGS.

Whether right or not, such criticisms came as a surprise to former FWS scientists such as Haseltine. "I never questioned our independence during my years" at FWS, she says. "I was never told not to do a study that might have negative results for our policies. But science has to be perceived as independent to be credible. We are more independent [in a research agency] than in a land management or regulatory agency."

"We are seen as unbiased," says Carol Schuler, director of USGS's Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center in Corvallis, Oregon. Schuler, who spent 18 years as an FWS wildlife biologist and program manager, adds, "We benefit by being able to do science separate from management and operations. That gives our science a greater credibility since we don't have a stake in the outcome."

Responsible research in a political environment

To have an impact, USGS studies have to be not only independent and unbiased but also relevant. "We take our responsibilities as a science agency very seriously," Groat says. "We want to make sure that the science we do is the science that meets the Fish and Wildlife Service's needs. We want the refuge managers and researchers to talk to each other. We want to help the managers [use our studies to] plan for both the short and long term."

To help ensure that USGS research directly relates to FWS needs, Congress in 2001 created a $3.4 million program-plus another $750,000 from an earlier species-at-risk program-under which USGS scientists conduct studies specifically requested by FWS managers and scientists at the regional level. One such study is Michael Runge's work on managing wetland impoundments on national wildlife refuges. Others include ecological modeling of invasive species on refuges, population ecology of endangered species, fish genetics, and bird migration patterns. "We do whatever is on their list," Haseltine says of the FWS regional offices. "They tell us what they want done."

Big brown bats are captured, and then radiotagged, as they forage at night in parks and natural areas around Fort Collins, Colorado. Local bat populations are sampled repeatedly over time to determine their movements, survival, and health status in relation to rabies. Photograph courtesy of USGS.

At the same time, Williams and Ashe at FWS are seeking to rebuild the agency's scientific standing. "We had forgotten to some extent how to ask questions that are meaningful or helpful to scientists," Ashe says. "We have to be able to think ahead to science that can provide the answers that we will need. We need to anticipate future problems and to ask questions today to get the information we will need tomorrow."

Toward that end, Williams has created a "science excellence initiative" to foster and strengthen FWS's commitment to science. The initiative includes improving FWS's relationship with USGS and other Interior agencies as well as with scientific and professional societies outside the government. It seeks to identify future problems and the science needed to address them. And it acknowledges the education and training in science that many FWS employees possess by establishing a science career track within the agency separate from that for field managers. So far, though, Congress has not funded the science initiative.

USGS's Sue Haseltine and Chip Groat and FWS's Steve Williams and Dan Ashe are joined by other participants in their two agencies' scientific summit at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in 2003. USGS has a $174 million budget for wildlife biology. Most USGS studies are done for or relevant to FWS field programs. Photograph by Ryan Hagerty, FWS.

Despite these and other steps to improve the ability to undertake and make use of science at FWS, a number of outside observers and former FWS officials have doubts. For example, former FWS director (from 1997 to 2001 ) Jamie Rappaport Clark describes the science excellence initiative as good, but easy. "It's like picking low- hanging fruit," says Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. She argues that the initiative should not be used as a substitute for policy decisions regarding wildlife refuges or endangered species.

More important are the appointments of Ashe as science advisor to the FWS director and of Gary Frazer as the agency's liaison with USGS. Clark praises their work but questions the reasons for their current assignments. The issue stems from the transfer of Ashe and Frazer, both career FWS employees, from their previous positions heading the agency's refuge and endangered species programs in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Clark and other critics charge that Interior Department officials removed the two from those more politically sensitive positions because they questioned Bush administration policies regarding the Arctic refuge and endangered species.

Ashe, who has a master's degree in marine biology, says his transfer from refuges to science "was not my first choice, but it gives me an opportunity to have an impact on and do things that are important for this organization." For his part, FWS director Williams says Ashe was chosen as science advisor because of his leadership and people skills. "I need someone who can move our [science] initiative forward," Williams says. "Dan has the ability to pull it off."

Yet other issues involve FWS's loss of its research arm. Most serious is the question of money. The $3.4 million approved by Congress for USGS to undertake research specifically requested by FWS represents but 2 percent of USGS's $174 million budget for biological and ecological research. While much of that money supports FWS field programs, overall wildlife biology ranks third behind water and geology in USGS's $938 million budget.

"Money is our biggest single challenge," says James Michael Scott, a senior research scientist at the USGS cooperative research unit at the University of Idaho, in Moscow. "Getting sufficient funding is the biggest hurdle to getting our research questions addressed, especially for endangered species." Indeed, the cooperative research units at more than 40 land grant universities, once a part of FWS but now under USGS, lack the funds to fill one in seven science positions nationwide, states Robert Davison, the Wildlife Management Institute's field representative in Corvallis, Oregon.

"The budget for cooperative research has remained basically the same [at $14.8 million] for three years," charges Davison, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for fish, wildlife, and parks in the Clinton administration. "Cooperative research is a unique federal-state partnership for research and education. We are losing the opportunity for very cost-effective and productive research."

Some barriers remain

The cooperative units symbolize yet another problem. The organizational change from FWS to USGS removed the direct ties between FWS scientists and field managers and their counterparts at cooperative units, and at universities and other partners of the units. "We weren't going to the same meetings any more," says Ken Williams, chief of USGS's cooperative research program. "We've had to work harder and go out of our way to ensure that [FWS] can still take advantage of us." More recently, FWS has been added to more than 20 cooperative agreements, making joint efforts easier.

Another concern involves FWS's loss of day-to-day scientific advice from researchers who were often stationed at wildlife refuges or elsewhere in the agency with easy access to field managers. "We don't know what our problems are because we don't have people [in the field]," says Reid Goforth, a retired FWS research coordinator. "Long-term research is useful, but we need information to make daily decisions. We can't wait five years for answers."

"It's an impediment," Ashe says of the bureaucratic barriers between Interior agencies and FWS's loss of day-to-day scientific advice. "That's why we needed to build mechanisms to get access to researchers. That's why we are building a better scientific capacity. That's why we have to build a new relationship [with USGS]. That's why the new spirit of cooperation [between FWS and USGS] is so exciting."

Sometimes, rather than institutional relationships, individual scientists in the two agencies have developed their own associations. "It's taken awhile, but I am finding ways to work with [FWS] scientists to develop new relations," says USGS's Runge. Establishing such relations, he adds, is easier for FWS employees who joined that agency after the divorce and newer USGS researchers who, like Runge, did not work for FWS. "They're professional, responsible people who are working hard to incorporate science into their management," Runge says of FWS field biologists.

A related problem may be the lack of a resident scientist at many of FWS's national wildlife refuges, says The Wildlife Society's Franklin. "You can't make good decisions [without a scientist at the refuge]. You have to manage by the seat of your pants. It makes [it difficult to know] whether what you are doing is working." That's why FWS and USGS have encouraged scientists at the local level to meet regularly, FWS's Williams says. "Some had never even met each other."

Not all issues relate directly to questions of institutional relationships or the quality of science available to FWS or USGS. Some stem from proposals by the Bush administration to require that any scientific advice used to support management decisions undergo peer review first. While t\he Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has backed off its original proposals for additional peer review, the new ones still put the burden of proof on agency policymakers and scientists before any endangered species or other action could be taken, Franklin says.

"It's disconcerting," Franklin says of the original OMB proposals, adding that even the new ones raise concerns. "Peer review is a foundation of science. It is correctly used to review scientific research papers before they are published, but should not be used for decision-making. That is an entirely different process. Politicians are using [peer review] for their own purposes."

In the end, for better or worse, Ashe says, FWS no longer manages scientific research. Rather, it is a management agency that uses science. There is always a tension between managers and scientists because decisionmakers have to take other factors into account. "Management is not just about science," he points out. "Management is about trying to balance science with policy, politics, and available resources. [The role of science in resource management] is not as cut and dried as some people think."
Jeffrey P. Cohn (e-mail: jeffcohn@sbcglobal.net) is a freelance science writer living in Takoma Park, Maryland

 

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