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Did Alaska Fish Board appointee really discover an endangered species?

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 4, 2015

Kenai Peninsula fisherman Roland Maw, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker's controversial appointee to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, claims in his resume to have been responsible for a significant scientific achievement, the first identification of a new, endangered species in North America.

In a sworn 2013 affidavit setting out his bona fides as an authority on Alaska fisheries, Maw wrote that he was the "coauthor of 'Fishing Canada's Mountain Parks,' 1985 ... (which has) received numerous public awards for the first scientific description and naming of 'Bull Trout' as a new species of char/trout.''

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorities, however, say the bull trout, a close cousin of the Dolly Varden char, was first identified by Ted Cavender of The Ohio State University Museum of Zoology in 1978 and officially recognized as a new species by the American Fisheries Society in 1980.

And Maw's thesis adviser at the University of Alberta, the primary author of "Fishing Canada's Mountain Parks,'' said Maw's claim of a new scientific discovery is untrue. Professor emeritus James Butler said his book never won any awards.

"I never heard that,'' Butler said. "He (Maw) certainly didn't name that. I'm not sure that he's been accurately quoted. ...I know he cared deeply about bull trout, but he didn't name it.''

Told that Maw's claim came from a sworn affidavit signed by Maw, Butler didn't know what to say. Biologists at the University of Alberta did sometimes ask for Maw's help in identifying char and salmon, because Maw was at the time working summers in Alaska as a commercial fisherman and was good at field identification, Butler said. But Maw wasn't directly involved in bull trout research.

Maw was a professor at an Alberta community college working on a study of public attitudes and perceptions of grizzly bears in Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park, Butler said.

Maw's bull trout claim, if true, would represent a major scientific coup. The bull trout is an endangered species across its range in North America.

Asked about the claim to identification of the bull trout in a phone interview, Maw tried to deny it. He said he only accepted that others had credited him with the discovery.

"That comes from a book I published,'' Maw said. "The American Fisheries Society quotes it as the original description (of bull trout). ... I was just going off some references in the Journal of Fisheries Science. They quoted it in there as the reference.''

Maw was unable to direct Alaska Dispatch News to any such reference, however, and an independent search could find none. A 2009 report from the Alberta Fish & Wildlife Division updating the "Status of Bull Trout in Alberta'' contains a section on "literature cited'' that lists more than 150 bull trout studies and reports dating back to 1978.

There is no reference for Maw or Butler or "Fishing Canada's Mountain Parks." There is a reference to "Cavender, T.M." for his "Taxonomy and distribution of bull trout'' in 1978.

Cavender's research "was published in a California Department of Fish and Game publication and has been referenced in many different documents'' since then, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Leith Edgar of Idaho said in an email to Alaska Dispatch News. Fish and Wildlife work on bull trout, a threatened species, is centered in Idaho.

Maw said he'd never heard of Cavender and was skeptical that the scientist had found the same bull trout in Northern California that is found in Alberta.

"He may have described it," Maw said, "but 'bull trout' is a common name.

"That far south, knowing something about bull trout, that could be an entirely different species. ... Did I or Jim (Butler) check with someone in California? I didn't check with anyone in California. I don't know what they're calling a bull trout down there.''

Maw suggested Cavender might have identified, and the Fisheries Society might have classified, a subspecies of bull trout, Salvelinuis confluentus. There are no known subspecies.

"I don't know where you are going with this,'' Maw said.

Reminded that he had sworn under oath that he and Butler were credited with "numerous public awards for the first scientific description and naming of 'Bull Trout' a new species of char/trout,'' Maw said, "That's in the affidavit? I signed it? I'd have to look and see exactly what that wording is.''

Alaska Dispatch News offered to send him an electronic copy of the document so he could review it before commenting further. Maw said that was impossible.

"I'm flying tomorrow,'' he said. "So it won't be tomorrow.''

"The only email I have is my wife's email.''

Sending the document to his phone, he said, was out of the question because "I'm on a flip phone.''

Maw did say he would research the issue further and get back to Alaska Dispatch News.

He was unable to remember if he researched the history of bull trout in North America before swearing to the claim the Alberta fishing guide he co-authored revealed the first scientific description of a new species. He also said he didn't know why he put the claim in his sworn court affidavit.

"I don't know. I'd have to go back and look at my notes on that,'' he said.

But he was sticking to his guns on the assertion that it might remain possible he found a new species.

"I would strongly suspect the fish in California are not the same as the ones in Alberta,'' Maws said. "I do not understand why Jim would say that (claim was wrong). We looked at lots and lots of fish. We were struggling with "Is this really, really different than a Dolly Varden?' ''

By 1980, however, it had already been established that the bull trout was different from the Dolly, and the taxonomic standards for identification had been certified.

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