(Long) Fish, Lynx flubs hit agencies' credibility
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Fri Feb 8 13:05:01 EST 2002
>From The Oregonian, Feb. 5, 2002, p A1
Fish, lynx flubs hit agencies' credibility
The integrity of federal biologists' science becomes an issue, raising
questions about coming decisions crucial to the region
By MICHAEL MILSTEIN, The Oregonian
If biology were boxing, it would be a one-two punch.
First, federal biologists admitted planting false lynx hair in a
region survey for the threatened cat. Then a national panel of top
scientists found last week that there was no scientific basis for the
federal decision to withhold water from hundreds of Klamath Basin
farms last summer.
The two blows have federal wildlife agencies reeling, especially in
the Northwest. They now must struggle to regain credibility as
Congress considers hearings into the integrity of their science and
the decisions based on it.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Monday she was "concerned by the
weaknesses" exposed by the National Academy of Sciences panel convened
at her request to review the basis for last year's Klamath water
cutbacks. The panel found "flaws with respect to critical components
of the analysis" by federal agencies, she said.
Norton ordered the new director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
and the commissioner of reclamation to examine the panel's report and
submit corrective recommendations to her within 10 days, said her
spokesman, Mark Pfeifle.
"We need to make sure that the people affected by these decisions and
the public at large has confidence that the department is using
accurate and reliable science," he said.
Scientists on the national panel said the problem was not the science
itself but the lack of it. There was "no substantial scientific
foundation" for holding water in Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath
River for protected fish, they said, instead of releasing some to
"It may be that the fish do, in fact, need more water, but based on
the information available, we could not say that," said Eugene
Helfman, a University of Georgia ecologist and panel member. The group
will provide a more far-reaching final report a year from now.
But he said it's already clear that the Klamath Basin's biggest
challenge is less the quantity of water than the quality of it. Foul
water flowing into the basin's lakes and rivers is so laden with
harmful chemicals and nutrients more of it may hurt fish more than
"The big problem is that water is not good water, and giving the fish
more if it isn't going to help," Helfman said. "The solution lies in
improving water quality. You don't give a dying patient junk food to
make them better."
Stopping Monday in Portland on his way to meet farmers later in the
day in Klamath Falls, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said he would seek
congressional hearings on the National Academy of Sciences findings.
Walden has been a strong critic of the endangered species mandate that
held water back for protected fish during last summer's drought, when
it otherwise could have flowed to farms.
He said the Klamath findings, coming on the heels of the furor over
the lynx hair late last year, undermine public confidence in federal
"This really does call into question the decision and the science,"
Walden said. "A few of these things really destroy the credibility of
the agencies. As a public policy-maker, what am I supposed to rely
He said the federal government is "wide open" to lawsuits by farmers
seeking damages for the decision, although a federal court had ruled
last year the water cutbacks were warranted given the strong demands
of the Endangered Species Act.
The academy's report did not proved a "blank check" to open canal
headgates in Klamath, Walden cautioned. Congress still must act
quickly on proposals to boost water quality through restoration of
wetlands and other means, along with improving habitat for endangered
suckers and threatened coho salmon, he said.
The national panel warned that Bureau of Reclamation proposals to
draw Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River far below levels of the
last decade to supply farms with water in dry years could pose
"unknown risk" to fish.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries
Service, the two agencies behind the decision to leave farms without
much of their water during a severe drought, now face the most
Anne Badgley, the fish an wildlife agency's regional director in
Portland, told employees last month that the breaches of scientific
protocol exposed by the lynx furor "threaten our credibility as an
agency and our standing in the eyes of the public."
The Interior Department clamped down on field offices Monday after
the Klamath report emerged, and Badgley would not comment. But many in
the Fish and Wildlife Service said they now must explain why their
decision reserved most water for fish without clear scientific
The decision hinged on the Endangered Species Act demand to use the
"best available science" and err on the side of protecting species,
"You don't have all the information available, but you still have to
make a decision," said Megan Durham, chief spokeswoman for the Fish
and Wildlife Service.
Both the lynx episode and the new Klamath findings prove that science
works, if given the chance, said Peter Saundry, director of the
nonprofit National Council for Science and the Environment in
"Both stories to me, as a scientist, are a positive outcome: There
was a review, and weaknesses were found," he said.
But funding for science, particularly in the Interior Department, has
suffered in recent years, he said. Federal wildlife officials
acknowledged even when making the decision to reserve additional water
for Klamath fish last year that they did not have a good idea how many
endangered suckers there are.
"Science calls for constantly checking, so that if one scientist gets
it wrong, either by commission or omission, there are others to catch
it," Saundry said. "But there's a basic investment you have to make to
have that kind of good science. If you don't sit back and wait for the
chaos to begin."
On the Internet: The National Academy report is available on the Web
Comment by poster: It seems obvious to me, at least, that Rep. Greg
Walden is running on a political platform, not science. The issue of
the lynx hair from a known, mounted specimen, was to assure there was
not contamination in the scientific process. Had the control implant
_not_ been found by DNA analysis, the whole study would have been
called into question. But to announce the hairs before analysis would
have negated the quality of the study.
As for the fish study, the government was proceeding with the best
available data at the time. It is fairly obvious to most people who
have grown fish that they do not last long without water. (You can try
this at home if you like.) Reserving the water in K. Falls seemed to
me the best available science at the time. Especially considering that
the GOP reps successfully limited funding for more advanced science
and information. It seems to me they were hoisted on their own petard.
Or is this more a case of Aesop's "Sour Grapes"?
Daniel B. Wheeler
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