Just weeks after calling for the removal of gray wolves from the Endangered Species List, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now under fire for allegations that it intentionally excluded three prominent scientists—whose views diverged from the Service’s on delisting—from an upcoming peer review process.
In June, Fish and Wildlife called to delist gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, leaving an exception for the struggling Mexican wolf in the Southwest. Agency director Dan Ashe told the media that the gray wolf had recovered to the point that it could thrive and even enlarge its territory without federal oversight. Several wolf advocates and some members of Congress disagreed. Once wolves are delisted, their management will fall to individual states.
But in order for the delisting process to continue, federal law requires that a team of scientists evaluate the basis for the motion. As such, Fish and Wildlife hired a private contractor to select and oversee the peer review panel. According to Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire, the agency isn’t supposed to know who the panelists are. But the Associated Press revealed that the contractor chosen to assemble the panel had provided a list of candidates that redacted their names but included their professional resumes. Armed with this information, the Service found three esteemed wolf biologists, who—and this is the key part—had expressed concern with the gray wolf delisting plan. They also, along with 16 other prominent scientists, had signed a letter expressing this concern. Shortly thereafter, Fish and Wildlife effectively “delisted” the three scientists from the panel.
The three are identified as Dr. John Vucetich, Dr. Robert Wayne, and Dr. Roland Kays. All have published extensively on the wolf and are considered preeminent experts. Yet the Center for Biological Diversity’s Bret Hartl reports that the Service rescinded their invitations because, in the agency’s words, they have an “unacceptable affiliation with an advocacy position.”
Vucetich and Wayne told the AP that they had received emails from the contractor saying they were being excluded from the review team because they had signed the letter. Kays said he had been “solicited as a possible panelist” but later told he wouldn't be needed.
Vucetich, a biologist and wolf specialist, told the AP it was “absolutely wrong” to disqualify an expert from a peer review team because of previous statements about a proposed policy. Any competent scientist will approach such an assignment with an open mind and be willing to alter his or her opinion if new information justifies it, he said.
According to the AP, Shire declined comment on the dealings with the three scientists, saying the matter was under review. But he said the Fish and Wildlife Service “wanted to be particularly sure that the people we got for this process were objective and unbiased” because the wolf is such a “highly polarizing subject.”
Brett Hartl, however, says that “peer review of the whole delisting question is complicated because the Service has injected so many improper policy considerations into this delisting proposal.” As Dan Ashe, Fish and Wildlife Service director, told the AP, “Science is an important part of this decision, but really the key is the policy question of when is a species recovered. Does the wolf have to occupy all the habitat that is available to it in order for it to be recovered? Our answer to that question is no.”
Yet under Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act, the decision to delist a species is required to be based on the best available science. “Had the Service followed this mandate, the best course of action would have been to develop a nationwide recovery plan for wolves using the best available science,” Hartl said. “Instead, the Service basically asked the States whether they wanted wolves or not and based its decision to delist the wolf on these political considerations.“
According to the AP, the contract with the outside firm has been put on hold and the peer review procedure will start anew. It's unclear whether the delay will affect the timetable for making a final decision on removing wolf protections, which is expected by June 2014.
But Hartl says that by injecting itself so deeply into the peer reviewer selection process, the entire peer review of the wolf delisting is likely to be tainted. “If the Service continues to oversee the review, then no matter how it comes out, one side or the other will be suspicious about whether the peer reviewers were objective.” Hartl recommends that the Service take a different course and have a scientific society, such as the American Society of Mammalogists or the Society for Conservation Biology, take over the peer review process and conduct it without Service involvement.