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From Wolves to Beetles, Recent Findings Expose Flawed FWS Science
This was an exceptionally tough week for the scientific reputation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). On Friday, FWS had to release findings from a specially convened independent peer review panel panning its plan to remove federal protections from the gray wolf.
A day earlier, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) posted an internal investigation confirming that senior FWS officials overrode their experts to significantly shrink the range of the American burying beetle (ABB), a critically endangered species in the path of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
One common element of two embarrassing episodes is that FWS officials tried to support the agency position by writing their own scientific studies and placing them in non-peer-reviewed journals. In the case of the gray wolf, the agency’s proposal rested on one FWS study which rewrote the entire taxonomy of the species. The expert panel, which FWS tried to purge last summer, rejected that gambit, declaring “unanimity among the panel that the rule does not currently represent the ‘best available science.’” In discussing the FWS study, one peer reviewer stated:
“I checked the authorship of the paper and they are four people who work for the Service. I don’t know how the USFWS works in general, but if you are trying to say ‘this is the best available scientific evidence’ and then have the paper written internally?”
Another reviewer concurred, adding:
“I agree it is problematic....It is curious why they only involved FWS scientists and it be published in Flora and Fauna. I think it is a journal that hasn’t had an issue since 1991.”
With the American burying beetle, FWS officials rushed a bogus study into a non-peer review journal to justify their actions. Despite admitting the study is flawed, FWS did not order its retraction.
David Parsons, who served as FWS’ first Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator from 1990-1999 and was primary author of the Mexican gray wolf rule that would be replaced by the proposed FWS plan, has been unambiguously critical of what he calls FWS’ “ politically motivated path to likely extinction” for the Mexican wolf. He further argues that these scientific deficiencies are symptomatic of a larger institutional corruption. In recent formal comments on the plan, he exclaimed:
“Based on my observations over the years, political influence and pressure has so pervaded the FWS hierarchy that professional staff feel so helpless, demoralized and in fear of career repercussions that they dare not defy orders from higher authorities ... Has FWS completely lost its soul and dedication to its mission?”
The independent peer review panel reinforced Mr. Parsons’ concerns that the FWS plan for the Mexican wolf “is not well supported,” in the dry words of one reviewer. Previously, PEER filed a formal scientific misconduct complaint based on documents detailing political deals with states to limit allowable range for the Mexican wolf, casting aside the findings of its own expert recovery team. FWS declined to investigate.
Rather than withdraw its plan in light of the peer review panel findings, FWS Director Dan Ashe ordered a new 45-day public comment period “to provide information that may be helpful to the Service in making a final determination on the proposal” by the end of 2014, according to an agency press release which concludes with this declaration: “We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence … ”
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s fiasco of a gray wolf plan has been a colossal waste of time and money that only underlines how politicized science has become in Dan Ashe’s tenure,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The Service desperately needs new leadership to restore its scientific integrity and credibility.”
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Julia Conley
Climate campaigners on Friday expressed hope that policymakers who are stalling on taking decisive climate action would reconsider their stance in light of new warnings from an unlikely source: two economists at J.P. Morgan Chase.
Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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