A survey issued this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that 74 percent of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists reported that consideration of political interests was too high at the agency.
That's not good news for anyone who cares about the fate of wildlife this agency is charged with protecting.
Unfortunately the survey comes as no surprise. We've witnessed a score of politically driven decisions by the Fish and Wildlife Service in recent years to deny or weaken protections for endangered species. That includes the recent decision to deny the greater sage grouse protection, a decision last year to withdraw proposed protections for wolverines and continued efforts to remove protections for gray wolves across the country even though they're recovered in less than 10 percent of their range and face continued persecution.
The Endangered Species Act is clear that decisions about how best to protect wildlife on the verge of extinction must be based solely on the best available science. And yet, time and again, political and economic interests worm their way in and influence decisions to the detriment of our most at risk plants and animals.
The UCS survey included responses from 6,999 scientists from four agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - all agencies where science is supposed to drive decisions.
Although scientists from all of these agencies identified problems, a greater proportion of those from the Fish and Wildlife Service consistently identified concerns with the agency's decision making.
Eighty-three percent of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, for example, said political interests carried some or a lot of weight in agency decisions, compared to 75 percent for CDC, 74 percent for NOAA and 63 percent for the FDA. Likewise, 45 percent of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists said that the agency had been harmed by "practices that defer to business interests," compared to 33 percent at FDA, 30 percent for NOAA, and 23 percent for CDC.
Fish and Wildlife also had the most scientists say that they had experienced business interests forcing the withdrawal or modification of policies or actions to protect public health, the environment or endangered species.
And 66 percent of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists said they had witnessed congressional interference that led to the withdrawal or modification of policies or decisions compared to 52 percent at CDC, 53 percent at FDA and 49 percent at NOAA.
Such congressional interference was in full view this week at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee where climate denying Sens. Inhofe (R-OK) and Sullivan (R-AK) grilled Dan Ashe, the director of Fish and Wildlife, over protecting the polar bear based on "speculative" modeling that the species will lose the sea ice habitat it needs to survive, even though that sea ice is already rapidly disappearing.
The reality is that the Fish and Wildlife Service is under constant pressure from the oil and gas industry, big agriculture and other industries (and their cronies in Congress) that feel their bottom line is threatened by efforts to save imperiled wildlife from extinction. According to hundreds of the agency's own scientists, it appears this pressure is getting results.
In the words of one of the agency's own scientists: "Outside interest groups (especially the States, BLM, and energy companies) have too much influence on FWS decisions. We need more backbone to make the right decisions regardless of political posturing, especially in Region 6. Look at the wolverine decision, for example."
Decisions over the fate of the nation's most vulnerable wildlife ought to be made by the scientists who know them best, not politicians and certainly not by those solely driven by profits. America's wildlife not only belong to all of us, but we hold them in trust for future generations.
I sincerely hope that President Obama will take this survey to heart - after all, it's his administration's own scientists raising the alarm - and use his time left in office to reform the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies being unduly influenced. The survival of endangered species, the health of our environment and public safety all depend on it.