Feb 252015
 

PEER news release (2/25/15) (and pasted below)

SCIENTIFIC FRAUD INFESTS FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE TOP RANKS

Whistleblower Hearing Traces Corruption and Retaliation Back to Director’s Door


Washington, DC —An explosive whistleblower hearing transcript paints a vivid picture of rampant scientific misconduct, callous reprisal and systemic mendacity within the upper echelons of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which posted the full texts today. The transcript also illustrates how a highly-touted agency Scientific Integrity Policy has become a tool for just the opposite.

This whistleblower case is striking because it involves a high-level manager rather than a field biologist; Gary Mowad is a 28-year FWS veteran and former Deputy Director for law enforcement. For the past few years, Mowad had been the FWS Texas Administrator for the Ecological Services Division, handling a parade of thorny endangered species and natural resource issues arising out of the Lone Star State.

The hearing took place because Mowad challenged being placed on an open-ended “detail” causing him to leave Austin for Albuquerque for a position with no apparent duties. The reassignment followed his reporting a number of scientific integrity concerns, including what he termed a blatantly political decision by the FWS hierarchy to reverse the staff recommendation that the dune sagebrush lizard, with habitat in the heart of Texas oil country, be listed under the Endangered Species Act

In an August 18, 2014 hearing before the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, testimony indicated:

  • Widespread scientific fraud, such as using models to classify paved parking lots as endangered species habitat, is facilitated by top FWS officials to accommodate a network of politically connected consultants called the “Texas mafia;”
  • Within hours after Mowad’s disclosure to the FWS Scientific Integrity Officer, it was relayed to top headquarters officials, and he was ordered to vacate his office. An arrangement to end Mowad’s exile was personally quashed by FWS Director Dan Ashe; and
  • The Whistleblower Ombudsman for Interior’s Office of Inspector General testified that “Months of pointed discussions and stern warnings…have not resulted in any formal and permanent action” to discipline managers guilty of misconduct or protect whistleblowers from further retaliation.

Mowad’s case quickly settled after MSPB Judge Mary Ann Garvey summarized what she had heard by saying “it appears that the history of the Fish and Wildlife, and specifically …Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle, [Deputy Director Rowan] Gould, and Ashe is that whistleblowing retaliation is tolerated or even condoned. Apparently someone got promoted or something good happened to them after they retaliated.”

“Political skewing of science in today’s Fish & Wildlife Service is just as rife and blatant as it was during the darkest days of the Bush years,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization represented other FWS scientists working in the Southwest Region under Tuggle. “The Service’s entrenched culture of corruption persists with the full knowledge and blessing of Director Dan Ashe.”

Currently, PEER is in federal district court trying to pry records out of FWS detailing the role Ashe and his top deputies played in derailing scientific misconduct cases. Ashe’s office maintains that no records exist documenting what others have testified about his actions. Adding injury to insult, the Interior Department, FWS’ parent agency, weakened its Scientific Integrity Policy, just before Christmas to make it even harder to discipline managers who override science in pursuit of agency agendas.

“After reading this transcript, it is hard to dispute that emerging safeguards against politicized science are stillborn,” added Ruch. “Until these agencies admit the problem exists, there will be no progress. The first meaningful step toward reform would be removing Dan Ashe as Director.”

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Read key excerpts from the hearing testimony

View the full 673-page hearing transcript
Volume I

Volume II

See PEER lawsuit on FWS Director’s role in fraud cases

Note recent weakening of Interior’s Scientific Integrity Policy

Review recent FWS scientific integrity scandals

 

May 092012
 

Leapin' lizards, batman: The dunes sagebrush variety of this particular reptile is getting a lot of attention.

Make up your minds, already (Photo courtesy FWS)

The Washington Post's Energy and Environment page has coverage of DOI's approval of "a major natural gas project in Utah’s Uinta Basin that could develop more than 3,600 new wells over the next decade, while safeguarding air quality and assuring the protection of critical wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation values. The project will support up to 4,300 jobs during development."

The quote is not from the Post's story, but from DOI's news release. issued yesterday (and reprinted below). In the Post, Steven Mufson writes that "the action doesn’t open any new land for production, because the drilling will take place on leases­ already owned by Anadarko. But the step by Interior assuaged some in Utah, where shortly after taking office President Obama had canceled 77 leases issued by President George W. Bush."

In its Biological Opinion, FWS made a number of conservation recommendations regarding protection of -- or avoidance of jeopardy to -- four endangered Colorado River fishes. Or as they've been known all the years they've been swimming in endangered waters together, the Colorado River Endangered Fishes -- Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail, and humpback chub by, which will be adversely affected by water depletions of up to 757 acre-feet per year.

One apparent difference between the DOI release and the Post story is the estimate of jobs created. DOI says 4,300, the Post quotes Anadarko as claiming creation of "as many as 2,900 jobs, directly and indirectly, during construction."

But here's DOI's full explanation: "The new gas wells proposed under the plan would support an annual average of 1,709 jobs directly and 1,212 jobs indirectly. At peak development, the project would support 4,302 short-term jobs, and support an average of 875 long-term jobs over the production life of the project."

It's all in how you look at it.

Oddly, if you look at the Post's E&E page, you won't find a link to Juliet Eilperin's story from just three days ago on the fight over the lizard's conservation status: FWS is scheduled to decide in June whether to list it as threatened or endangered under the ESA. Mufson's story, done from a political/economic point of view (and posted on the business page), doesn't mention the lizard. Eilperin explores the lizard listing decision's impact on a settlement the service reached with environmental groups to make decisions on hundreds of candidate species, including the lizard.

Here are the story's first three paragraphs:

It wasn’t too hard for the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide the fate of 92 freshwater snails, or 17 dragonflies, or indeed more than 500 species over the past year. But when it comes to the dunes sagebrush lizard, trouble looms.

The small spiny reptile seeks refuge from the hot sun and potential predators in the shinnery oak dunes of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Ranchers have been clearing the oak shrubs, and oil and gas companies are drilling in the dunes. If the lizard is designated as an endangered species, some of those activities could be in jeopardy.

The lizard’s future is among the first in a series of wrenching tests threatening what has been a year-long cease-fire in the fight over endangered-species listings.

The article frames the upcoming deadlines -- reached with Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity in settlements agreed to last year -- in the context of the big election in November.

The storm may start with the dunes sagebrush lizard, first listed as a candidate for federal protection in 1982. Since then its habitat has been reduced by 40 percent. Fish and Wildlife proposed listing the animal, also known as the sand dunes lizard, as endangered in December 2010.

The agency was set to issue a final decision a year later but delayed doing so by six months in the face of fierce congressional resistance. Now it must decide by mid-June what to do about the lizard. Some of its habitat overlaps with the oil-rich Permian Basin, which produces 17 percent of the nation’s annual onshore oil supply.

Permian Basin Petroleum Association President Ben Shepperd, whose group represents 900 oil and gas producers in New Mexico and Texas, estimates that the association has spent between $500,000 and $1 million on consultants who have conducted their own census of the lizard and challenged several aspects of agency’s listing proposal.

“The evidence does not point to a threat to this species,” Shepperd said, adding that his members fear this decision — along with ones on the lesser prairie chicken and spot-tailed earless lizard, also mandated under the settlement agreement — could restrict oil and gas drilling. “We think the impact is in the billions of dollars.”

In all, the settlements apply to more than 800 species, but the deadlines are spaced out over five years.

More lizard and settlement-related links

Snails, mentioned above

Final listing rules from 2011 and from this year

Proposed listings and petition findings for this year (but don't forget the March 21, 2012, reopening of the public comment period and announcement of a public hearing on proposed designation of critical habitat for the Southern Selkirk Mountains Population of Woodland Caribou)

Below (just because we can do it) is a screenshot of proposed actions for this year. Click here to access that page with working links.

Some more recent news:

The proposed regulation is intended to address sea turtle captures in skimmer trawls — fishing equipment, used primarily in bays and estuaries, that are currently exempt from using TEDs. TEDs prevent turtles from drowning in nets, but limited applicability and lax enforcement are thought to have led to thousands of deaths in 2010 and 2011. Currently, skimmer trawls can use tow-time restrictions instead of TEDs. Tow times limit the amount of time shrimpers can keep their trawls in the water, but evidence is mounting that even when these restrictions are followed, skimmers drown turtles. The proposed rule would abandon the tow time restrictions and require skimmer trawls, pusher-head trawls and wing nets to use TEDs.

  • May 3: Seahorse moves toward protection (Ctr. for Biological Diversity) Excerpt:  "In response to an April 2011 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced today that the dwarf seahorse may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The one-inch-long seahorse, found in seagrass beds in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and the Caribbean, is threatened with extinction due to decline of seagrass, commercial collection and lingering pollution from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Today’s announcement kicks off a one-year review of its status to determine if federal protection will be granted."

Here's the DOI press release on the Salazar/Abbey/Ashe visit to the Permian Basin:

http://www.doi.gov/ui/doi/images/2008-news-release-header.jpg

Salazar, Ashe Emphasize Importance of Texas Energy Development;
Highlight Conservation Agreement for Dunes Sagebrush Lizard

Meet with Industry Officials in Permian Basin

May 8, 2012

MIDLAND, Texas – A day after showcasing a successful partnership in Utah between industry and the conservation community to protect environmentally sensitive areas while developing America’s energy resources, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Dan Ashe today met with oil and gas industry representatives to emphasize the importance of energy development in the Permian Basin and to highlight expanding voluntary conservation efforts for the dunes sagebrush lizard on the part of ranchers and the oil and gas industry.

“Expanding responsible oil and gas development is a top priority for President Obama and his administration as part of an all-of-the-above approach to American energy,” Salazar said during the meeting at a ConocoPhillips site outside Midland. “As we pursue this goal, I commend oil and gas operators in Texas and New Mexico for their voluntary participation in conservation agreements to protect this ancient landscape and I encourage their continued stewardship efforts as we pursue balanced energy development.”

In New Mexico, which contains 73 percent of the lizard’s habitat, 29 oil and gas companies and 39 ranchers are participating in a voluntary project to help conserve the dunes sagebrush lizard, which has been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If science shows that the lizard requires listing under the Endangered Species Act, landowners who have entered into a voluntary conservation agreement will receive assurances that no additional conservation steps above and beyond those contained in the agreement will be required. These conservation efforts now encompass more than 95 percent of the habitat area in New Mexico, with no known adverse impacts on energy development.

In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement (‘Texas Plan’) with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts that allows landowners – oil and gas companies and ranchers – to enter into voluntary conservation agreements that help provide certainty for development and protect the shinnery oak dunes that the lizard inhabits and that are characteristic of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Individual shinnery oak plants are known to extend over dozens of acres and can achieve ages of more than 13,000 years. Approximately 70 percent of the habitat area for the dunes sagebrush lizard in Texas, which contains 27 percent of the lizard’s total habitat, has already been enrolled in the voluntary conservation agreements.

The Texas Plan was developed locally in collaboration with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas A&M University, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, other state and county government agencies, local landowners, representatives from the ranching community and oil and gas operators and development companies in the area.

“It is good to see so many members of the oil and gas industry step up to the plate to voluntarily conserve this unique portion of the southern Great Plains,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “The scientists and professionals in the Fish and Wildlife Service will take these early, proactive measures into consideration in any final listing decision.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered in 2010 and is currently reviewing and analyzing public comment on the proposal in anticipation of a final decision in June. Under the law, the agency must make listing decisions based upon the best available science. The Fish and Wildlife Service had extended the timeline for a final decision to six months to allow the maximum time for scientific study and voluntary conservation efforts.

If the dunes sagebrush lizard is listed as endangered or threatened, the Texas Plan would act as a Habitat Conservation Plan for those companies and other landowners who participate, enabling them to continue to develop oil and gas while ensuring the long-term health of lizard populations.

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Greater Natural Buttes Project-BiOp.pdf