State policy leads beluga team to remove Alaska scientists

INDEPENDENCE: Beluga recovery team must continue without two Alaska experts.

June 4, 2011 

A Parnell administration rule that requires state scientists to adhere to official policy and not the principles of independent science when they work outside their agencies continues to fuel debate more than a month after two biologists were removed from a federal beluga whale recovery team.

The state biologists were kicked off the beluga panel because the rule compromised the scientific integrity of the team, federal officials said.

"The situation is unfortunate," said Leslie Cornick, an associate professor of marine biology and policy at Alaska Pacific University. "What you have is the politicians silencing their state-employed biologists, and the politicians, who don't know anything about interpreting scientific data, are interpreting scientific data in a way that fits their agenda."

The policy could have the long-term effect of chilling participation of state scientists in independent research and journal activity that scientists in academia have long enjoyed, said Cornick, who said she was speaking for herself and not her university.

Doug Vincent-Lang, the acting deputy commissioner of Fish and Game and an advocate of the new state rule, said in a recent interview that scientists are encouraged to engage in vigorous debate inside their agencies, but that once a position is established, the state has a right to demand adherence to it.

On April 25, as the issue simmered for months, the top official of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska decided the state gag rule on its scientists was in direct conflict with federal policy.

James Balsiger, the Juneau-based NMFS regional administrator, said he had no choice but to remove two Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists, Bob Small and Mark Willette, from the scientific panel of the Cook Inlet beluga whale recovery team, even though both are experts in their fields.

The 13-member panel of unpaid volunteers, now down to 11, is in the middle of drafting a plan designed to get Cook Inlet beluga whales, thought to number about 350, off the endangered species list. The panel is to determine how many belugas represent a sustainable population -- when victory can be declared -- and figure out a strategy to get there. The plan, due in rough form in about a year, would be subject to public comment and final approval by federal officials.

But the whole matter ran afoul of state policy because officially, Alaska's government says there's no distinct, isolated population of belugas in Cook Inlet, and in any event, they aren't facing extinction. The state sued the National Marine Fisheries Service last year in federal court in Washington, D.C., seeking to have belugas delisted. Motions for summary judgments are now being argued by the two sides and numerous intervenors.

EMPLOYEES MUST ADHERE TO STATE POLICY

NMFS listed the belugas as endangered in October 2008 and created the recovery team in March 2010 with two panels, both appointed by NMFS: the 13 scientists, who are expected to act independently; and 19 stakeholders who are supposed to represent development interests, environmental organizations, municipalities and Natives. Vincent-Lang represents the Fish and Game Department on the stakeholder panel.

In a seven-page "Terms of Reference" governing the panels, the federal fisheries service said the scientists "will not represent their agency or organization." The terms specify that the recovery team "is not a forum by which to discuss personal or institutional opinions regarding the listing of the species or its designated critical habitat."

Small, an expert in marine mammals who works out of Fish and Game's Juneau office, had served as team leader of a similar panel on Steller sea lions. Willette, who works out of Kenai, is an expert on the fish that belugas eat, like salmon and hooligan.

But on May 7, 2010, two months after the federal government produced its Terms of Reference, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued its new conflicting operating procedure. Specifically citing participation in Endangered Species Act Recovery teams, the rule says that once a state policy is set, "employees must present or adhere to such a position or policy" when their service on the team is related to their employment.

The order also covers such outside scientific work as performing blind reviews of journal articles and public reviews of federal rule making.

The rule was published as a standard operating procedure for employees, not a formal regulation that would be subject to public comment. In its text, the department acknowledged that it had long been inconsistent in its directions to employee scientists who engage in such outside activities.

According to minutes of the December meeting of the scientific panel, which took place in Seattle, Small and Willette disclosed that their bosses were insisting "that they should not only represent, but advocate for the State's position on issues pertaining to Cook Inlet belugas, including that the State does not recognize that there are any threats to Cook Inlet belugas. Those two members felt a full disclaimer of their directive was necessary regarding their participation in the group and their ability to be objective and to speak as scientists," the minutes said.

"I just remember the silence as we all realized there was an impasse," said killer whale expert Craig Matkin, a member of the science panel. The confusion was heightened by the fact that neither Small nor Willette knew precisely what the state rules required, Matkin said.

'BEST SCIENCE' PRINCIPLE

After what the minutes described as a "lengthy discussion," the scientific panel decided unanimously to demand that NMFS assure that either "best science" remain an operating principle of the entire group, as mandated by federal law, or that the two state officials be removed.

There was no indication in the minutes whether Small and Willette abstained from that unanimous demand. Small declined to comment for this story and Willette couldn't be reached.

On Jan. 13, Tamara McGuire, the recovery team leader and a beluga expert employed as a private consultant, followed up with a letter to Balsiger, the regional NMFS administrator, praising Small and Willette for their knowledge but urging their removal from the panel.

"Best science can only be obtained by inquiry and frank discussions that are driven by the scientific method, not by policy advocacy," McGuire wrote.

Timothy Ragen, director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission in Bethesda, Md., also urged Balsiger to act.

"Allowing a state, or federal agency, or any other governmental body to impose its policy on a recovery team would set a misguided, unfortunate precedent," Ragen wrote. "The very essence of the scientific process is that it seeks to discover and understand the world as it is, not as we would like, choose, or dictate it to be."

In an telephone interview, Ragen said the issue in Alaska arose about the same time that John Holdren, the White House science adviser, issued a long-awaited memo on scientific integrity to the heads of federal agencies.

"Science, and public trust in science, thrives in an environment that shields scientific data and analysis from inappropriate political influence; political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings," the memo said.

As a result of Holdren's memo, "we were all pretty finely tuned to the notion that we need to make sure that scientists are able to act independently and they are not limited by policy," Ragen said. "That doesn't mean that policy has to follow science, but it does mean that you can't change the way the science comes out just because you don't like it."

STATE WON'T BACK DOWN

On Jan. 24, Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell urged Balsiger to keep the state scientists on the panel, though she wasn't backing down on the state rules.

"We believe that having ADF&G staff participate and articulate state's scientific data and positions is important and necessary towards the development of the scientific sound and credible Recovery Plan," Campbell wrote. "The state has much to offer towards the development of this plan."

Balsiger responded on March 23 that he would keep the two state scientists on the panel. He flip-flopped a month later, saying the state and federal policies were in dead conflict and removed Small and Willette. In response to a request by the state, Balsiger at the same time directed that meetings of the scientific panel would be open to the public, rather then closed as its first two meetings were.

Balsiger wasn't available for comment, but his deputy, Robert Mecum, said the reversal was based on "further review" and "conversations with the leadership back East."

"We certainly respect the state's authority to require their employees to follow established procedures," Mecum said.

Vincent-Lang, the state's acting deputy commissioner of Fish and Game, said he was disappointed that Small and Willette were removed from the panel, but said the state's voice will be represented through the stakeholder panel.

"We'll still bring our science there," he said.

Vincent-Lang disputed the notion that the state is injecting politics into science. Rather, he said, it's just that the state is interpreting scientific data differently than the National Marine Fisheries Service. And that data shows that belugas are recovering from overhunting in the 1990s and will be fine without resorting to protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Jason Brune, a stakeholder panel member representing the Resource Development Council and a biologist himself, said he fears the stakeholders are just window dressing on the recovery panel and won't play a role in developing the plan. It was even worse when the scientific panel meetings were closed and the recovery plan was being developed in secret, he said.

"There are differences of opinion in the scientific community," Brune said. They should be aired, he added.

Nancy Lord, a writer and stakeholder panel member from Homer representing the environmental group Cook Inletkeeper, said she believed the Parnell administration was trying to disrupt the recovery process because of its hostility to the Endangered Species Act -- not just involving belugas but also sea lions and polar bears, which are also listed species.

"If your goal is to have a good recovery plan for the belugas, which is my goal, you would want the best expertise on that panel to develop a really good science-based recovery plan," Lord said.

But if recovery is thwarted, she said, the consequences could be far-reaching. "If you don't have a good process and you don't have a good result, it's going to be open to litigation from any number of sides, and it's going to inhibit the recovery. That's going to mean longer time and maybe more restrictions -- maybe the very thing that they fear, restrictions on development," Lord said.


Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

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