Under the microscope: ESA peer reviews


 If it’s possible that USFWS may have a bias toward listing species and designating inappropriately large habitat areas, this report shows how the agency may be short-changing the peer review process to achieve those goals. Some of the techniques employed by the agency appear below.

As Gomer would say, Well Surprise! Surprise! — jtl

by Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent via Western Livestock Journal

A Handbook for Ranch ManagersA new report shows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF- WS) may need to take a course on scientific peer review. Peer review is where independent scientists try to find holes in other scientists’ work. It’s a vetting process, an effort to produce high quality science for important decisions, such as Endangered Species Act (ESA) listings. Information about USF- WS’s peer reviews are supposed to be as public as Cameron Diaz’ relationship status. Letting the public know the juicy details helps keep the agency honest.

Planned Grazing: A Study Guide and Reference ManualBut according to an oversight report released last month by the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resource Committee, the agency frequently thumbs its nose at peer reviews. The report’s authors looked at 35 ESA decisions, and how USFWS handled the peer review process. If it’s possible that USFWS may have a bias toward listing species and designating inappropriately large habitat areas, this report shows how the agency may be short-changing the peer review process to achieve those goals. Some of the techniques employed by the agency appear below.

Fox guarding the henhouse

The Environmental & Natural Resource Economics: The Austrian Viewoversight study reveals that, in most cases, the peer reviewers chosen by USFWS were actually reviewing their own work: They were the key authors in the very proposals the agency asked them to review.

For example, in 2012 the agency was considering listing the White Bluffs Bladderpod in Washington State. Debate raged over whether this was a “subpopulation” unique from populations found elsewhere—or whether it wasn’t so rare after all. The agency recruited a researcher to peer review her own study, which claimed that this population of bladderpod was, indeed, a “unique subspecies.” Her study was unpublished; meaning it probably has never undergone peer review at any point.

Combat Shooter's HandbookThen, a DNA test was presented to the agency that showed the plant was identical to bladderpods found in two other states. The agency kicked off another peer review process. The USFWS manager for Washington later said they’d needed “high powered people” to disprove the DNA test—a test he called a “red herring” that was “dead on arrival.”

AThe Betrayed: On Warriors, Cowboys and Other Misfitst least one of the five peer reviewers that the agency chose to review the DNA test could not have been called objective; he had been a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit to list this “subspecies” in 2005, and he had co-authored one of the original reports claiming the White Bluffs Bladderpod was a unique subspecies. Ultimately, the White Bluffs Bladderpod was listed.

The Essence of Liberty: Volume I: Liberty and History: The Rise and Fall of the Noble Experiment with Constitutionally Limited Government (Liberty and ... Limited Government) (Volume 1)The Essence of Liberty: Volume II: The Economics of Liberty (Volume 2)The Essence of Liberty: Volume III: A Universal Philosophy of Political Economy (Liberty: A Universal Political Ethic) (Volume 3)Examples abound of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s bias in determining what constitutes a unique species, WLJ learned in an interview with Dr. Rob Roy Ramey, Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology. Ramey, who has 33 years of experience in conservation, research and management of threatened and endangered wildlife, has testified before Congress as an expert witness as recently as 2013. He said the Gunnison sage-grouse is another example of bias in determining “unique species” status. As with the bladderpod, USFWS chose as a peer reviewer one of the very researchers claiming the Gunnison population was a separate species from the Greater sage-grouse. None of the actual data serving as proof was made public, Ramey told WLJ. Despite the dissent of three of the four peer reviewers in the Gunnison decision, the bird was listed.

Dr. Ramey told Congress in 2013 that species “experts” often stand to gain personally from listings, which can put these experts “into positions of power, money, and authority, through their roles on Recovery Teams, Habitat Conservation Plans, and consulting as [USFWS] ‘approved biologists.’” Another indication that some peer reviews may lack objectivity: The agency doesn’t screen out people affiliated with special interest groups, such as the Nature Conservancy or Center for Biological Diversity. In the listing decisions for the Oregon Spotted Frog, the Florida Bonneted Bat, and the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle listing, peer reviewers were affiliated with such groups.

Control the information

USFWS is not required to release to the public the data it uses to make decisions. In fact, it doesn’t even have to release it to peer reviewers. Dr. Ramey gave WLJ an example of how peer reviewers can be kept in the dark.

In the case of the coastal California gnatcatcher, the scientific community was divided over whether the bird was really a unique species. The USFWS did not provide the peer reviewers the original data of a study claiming the species was unique, the first critical review of that research, or technical reports or draft papers by statisticians and systematists that extensively retested the “unique species” claims.

Also not given peer reviewers were admissions by the researcher that he had “disposed of” his raw data, “may have used error corrections” to replace missing values in his data set, and used “subjective criteria of my own” to include or exclude specimens. The result, Ramey asserts, is the listing of a gnatcatcher population in California that may not even be a real subspecies, and thus shouldn’t qualify as threatened or endangered.

The agency gets to choose what information the peer reviewers address—and the public doesn’t necessarily get to know what that information is. The oversight report found this to be true in cases such as the Oregon Spotted Frog, the Gierisch Mallow plant, the northern Mexican gartersnake, and the narrow-headed gartersnake.

For all the public knows, the peer reviewers could have been asked to look at a study on the price of tea in China.

Deal with dissenters

How did the USFWS deal with peer reviewers who disagreed with the agency’s listing proposals? Four primary methods emerged in the report:

• The agency sometimes made the dissenters anonymous, so the public couldn’t tell which comments were from peer reviewers and which were simply from members of the public. • The agency, in some cases, didn’t include certain reviewers’ responses.

Or, it hid dissenting opinions from the public by burying them in large documents found at Regulations.gov.

• In some cases, when a peer reviewer disagreed with the agency proposal, the agency embarked on another peer review process—and chose arguably biased reviewers to address the dissenting opinions.

• Finally, the agency sometimes went ahead the proposed decision anyway, even when the majority of peer reviewers disagreed.


States, counties, and the private sector are pushing back—gathering their own data and, increasingly, waging legal challenges. But legislative reform might help make their efforts more successful. Last year the House of Representatives passed a bill that would require more transparency in ESA decisions— including posting all influential data online.

Some form of that legislation will likely be taken up this congressional session.

ESA reform is a wellknown bugaboo for lawmakers afraid of being labeled as “animal haters.” But, as Dr. Ramey points out, USFWS’s “medieval” science methods are only harming species that are truly in trouble. He told us shedding light on USFWS’s disservice to species—including the human race—will help give Congress the courage it needs. — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent

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BookCoverImageMurray N. Rothbard was the father of what some call Radical Libertarianism or Anarcho-Capitalism which Hans-Hermann Hoppe described as “Rothbard’s unique contribution to the rediscovery of property and property rights as the common foundation of both economics and political philosophy, and the systematic reconstruction and conceptual integration of modern, marginalist economics and natural-law political philosophy into a unified moral science: libertarianism.”

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About Land & Livestock Interntional, Inc.

Land and Livestock International, Inc. is a leading agribusiness management firm providing a complete line of services to the range livestock industry. We believe that private property is the foundation of America. Private property and free markets go hand in hand—without property there is no freedom. We also believe that free markets, not government intervention, hold the key to natural resource conservation and environmental preservation. No government bureaucrat can (or will) understand and treat the land with as much respect as its owner. The bureaucrat simply does not have the same motives as does the owner of a capital interest in the property. Our specialty is the working livestock ranch simply because there are so many very good reasons for owning such a property. We provide educational, management and consulting services with a focus on ecologically and financially sustainable land management that will enhance natural processes (water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics) while enhancing profits and steadily building wealth.
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