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May 24, 2005

Creationism by increment

The New York Times is carrying this story:

The southwestern regional director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has instructed members of his staff to limit their use of the latest scientific studies on the genetics of endangered plants and animals when deciding how best to preserve and recover them.


Dale Hall, the director of the southwestern region, in a memorandum dated Jan. 27, said that all decisions about how to return a species to robust viability must use only the genetic science in place at the time it was put on the endangered species list - in some cases the 1970s or earlier - even if there have been scientific advances in understanding the genetic makeup of a species and its subgroups in the ensuing years.

This is part of a couple decades of moves - which gained steam in the Reagan years and have only been accelerating since then, even under Clinton - to hamstring protection for endangered species.

You could argue that the Endangered Species Act is a blunt instrument, and imposes severe restrictions on landowners for no good reason. You'd be wrong, and I'd argue with you until the sun froze. But you'd at least have a consistent, logical position. And in the service of that position, it would make sense for you to argue that development permits and the like should not routinely be held up while exhaustive genetic studies are performed to see if the feral petunias in your yard were actually an endangered sub-sub-variety.

Again, you'd be wrong. But it's a legitimate argument.

But this? This is not banning further work to identify where populations fit in a species in order to streamline permits. This is an order to ignore work that has already been done. This is an order to set policy while deliberately ignoring known facts, another slap at reality from the non-reality-based Bush administration.

Oddly, at least some of those facts determined since the 1970s would be beneficial to the developers rather than a hindrance. It's not at all uncommon for researchers, using genetic evidence, to decide that visibly different organisms previously assigned to differing species are actually members of the same species. The northern flicker provides an example, comprising what had been considered two separate species: the "red-shafted" and "yellow-shafted" flickers.

This isn't so much an attack on endangered species, though they will certainly suffer - especially the putative target of the ruling, the Apache trout. What this actually is is an attack on government scientists, who have been a thorn in the Bush administration's side from his first inauguration.

Here's the thing. What does the Endangered Species Act do? To a first approximation, it protects biodiversity. Biodiversity results from evolution. The more evolution, the more biodiversity, as species evolve new daughter species. The research at issue is intended to map out the fractal geometry of those evolutionary relationships. People like PZ talk about the importance of fighting those who would roll back the scientific clocks to the days before Darwin... I wonder if they won't just do so by administrative fiat, thirty years at a time.

(Hat tip to Stephan Zielinski for letting me know about this one. I really should add Stephan to the blogroll: you really should all buy his book.)

Addendum: want to do something about this? The Union of Concerned Scientists is asking scientists to sign on to a letter of protest to be delivered to the southwest regional directorof the Fish and Wildlife Service. Information is below the fold. Please repost it anywhere you think it will do some good.

[From the Union of Concerned Scientists]

Biologists Told to Ignore Important Genetic Data at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

An article in today’s New York Times sheds light on a disturbing new U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) Southwest Region policy forbidding its biologists in many cases from using the most recent studies in wildlife genetics to protect and aid recovery of endangered and threatened species. The new policy has prompted strong criticism from both inside and outside the agency.

Now that this problem has the attention of the media, UCS and several other organizations are organizing a sign-on letter for scientists with expertise in this area to urge the southwestern regional director to scrap this new
policy. Please add your signature to the letter by emailing Noah Greenwald (
at the Center for Biological Diversity by Friday, May 27, 2005.

Examine the new FWS Southwest Region policy
Read the scientist sign-on letter
See the FWS Mountain-Prairie Regional Director’s concerns
Read the press release
Look at Southwest wildlife most affected by the new policy

FWS Southwest Regional Director Dale Hall released a policy memo on January 27, 2005 that prohibits agency biologists from considering new scientific information on unique genetic lineages when creating plans to protect or recover endangered species.

According to the memo, "recovery plans cannot require special consideration of previously unidentified genetic diversity before a species can be removed from the list. Genetic differences must be addressed during the listing process to determine what 'species' is being proposed. Once that is done, there can be no further sub-division of the entity because of genetics or any other factor unless a new listing proposal is forwarded that would change the status of the species."

On March 11, FWS Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Ralph Morgenweck wrote to Hall expressing profound concern with the new policy's impact on the agency's ability to fulfill its conservation mission.

"I have concerns that the policy could run counter to the purpose of the Endangered Species Act to recover the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend," he wrote. "It also may contradict our direction to use the best available science in endangered species decisions in some cases."

In his letter, Morgenweck cites several examples where genetic diversity has been critical to species’ survival because it allows wildlife to adapt to emerging threats, diseases and changing conditions.

By prohibiting consideration of individual or unique populations, Hall's policy will allow FWS to declare wildlife species secure based on the status of any single population. This would allow the agency to
pronounce species recovered even if a majority of populations were close to extinction, or allow the agency to approve development projects that extirpate individual populations.

In recent months, FWS has come under increasing criticism for allowing its scientific conclusions to be altered for political reasons. A recent UCS survey of FWS scientists found that more than in any other region, agency biologists in the Southwest have been subjected to political interference, with nearly half of the respondents working under Hall reporting being "directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making" findings protective of wildlife.

The Scientist Letter
The attention of the media to this problem gives scientists with expertise in genetics, conservation biology, and endangered species the unique opportunity to urge the Southwest Region to consider the best available science when making wildlife conservation decisions.

Please join with your colleagues in a scientist sign-on letter urging the southwest regional director to rescind the new policy by emailing Noah Greenwald at the Center for Biological Diversity by Friday, May 27. The letter will be sent to the
southwest regional director and released to the media soon.

"It is indisputable that recovery of endangered species will often require the protection and enhancement of multiple genetic lineages or populations," says the letter. A great number of species would be affected by the change in policy if it were allowed to stand.

All scientists can write letters to the editor of the New York Times and other newspapers that publish related stories, expressing the general concern that political appointees are interfering in federal government science at an unprecedented level - actions that have serious consequences for our health, safety, and environment.

Thank you for all you do to protect the integrity of science.


Michael Halpern
Outreach Coordinator
Restoring Scientific Integrity in Federal Policy Making Campaign
Union of Concerned Scientists

Posted by Chris Clarke at May 24, 2005 03:38 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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This is just staggering. Outrageous. Presumably much of their intent is to make sure that all the remaining real scientists are driven out of the agency -- what real scientist could possibly observe a directive such as this?

Posted by: dale at May 25, 2005 03:55 PM
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