WASHINGTON – Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee have released a report critical of the process used in determining protections afforded under the Endangered Species Act, asserting that peer reviewers are often motivated by bias and conflicts of interest.
The report, titled “Under the Microscope: An examination of the questionable science and lack of independent peer review in Endangered Species Act listings,” did not include input from committee Democrats or a response from the Obama administration. The GOP study researched the federal government’s peer review process for 13 different endangered species listings made by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) since July 2013 and found examples of a lack of transparency and consistency.
The agency, according to the report, sometimes employs peer reviewers who authored studies on the species they are reviewing. The GOP staff determined that the peer review process as currently employed by the FWS “relies on a network of scientists who, if nothing else, have a professional and academic interest in the outcome of the ESA listing decisions they are being asked to review.”
“In recruiting peer reviewers, the FWS appears to favor scientists whose views on a species are already well known rather than more independent scientists in other academic or professional fields who would be able to bring a fresh perspective to the science the FWS is citing to support its ESA listing decisions,” it said.
The FWS does not have clear or consistent procedures in place across all regional offices to ensure that potential peer reviewers undergo a screening to identify possible conflicts of interest or impartiality, the report said. The agency furthermore doesn’t consistently disclose information regarding who serves as peer reviewers, the instructions they are given or the substance of their comments.
“The decision of whether or not to list a species under the Endangered Species Act has significant implications for the economy and livelihoods of impacted communities and private landowners,” said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “As such, these important decisions must be based on sound science that has undergone an independent peer review.”
The report, Hastings said, “raises troubling concerns about the lack of independence of the peer review process and whether many current, upcoming or recently finalized listing decisions…are scientifically sound.”
Hastings expressed particular dismay over inclusion of the White Bluffs bladderpod, which is found in his congressional district. It is a small plant with bright yellow flowers and tiny inflated pods that isn’t edible and doesn’t provide any sort of herbal usage. It is, however, rare, apparently growing only along a 17-mile strip in the Columbia River Basin. FWS lists the bladderpod as threatened but wants to change that designation to endangered. Regional farmers would have to deal with the laws and regulations protecting the endangered species.
The committee majority’s report found that of the four peer reviewers who provided comments about the listing, “three had invested significant time to the study of the White Bluffs bladderpod.” One, Dr. Kathryn Beck, identified herself in her comments as “one of the original discoverers of these amazing plants” and expressed her desire to “weigh in if possible.”
The FWS eventually delayed implementation of the endangered designation in face of a lawsuit requiring extra time for comments. A DNA test on the bladderpod submitted during that period showed that the plant was not a unique subspecies and that the DNA was a 100 percent match with several other samples of bladderpods found in two other states, setting the stage for additional peer review.
One of the five individuals chosen for that review of the DNA evidence was Dr. Steven O’Kane who, according to the report, was a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit regarding protections for the White Bluffs bladderpod.
“With hundreds of ESA listings driven by this administration’s closed-door settlements with litigious groups, discovery of any potential bias about how ESA data and science are reviewed casts serious doubt on the credibility of these decisions and provides more evidence that the ESA needs continued oversight and updating,” Hastings said.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was designed to protect critically imperiled species from extinction as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” It is particularly unpopular with farmers and developers who often have to deal with regulations protecting various species. But the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the intent of the law “was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.”
In 2011, the Obama administration reached a settlement with various conservation groups to study whether more than 250 species need protection under the Endangered Species Act, drawing additional opposition from opponents charging that the law is harming economic development.
Gavin Shire, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, defended the agency’s actions, insisting that peer review “is an important part of any scientific endeavor” and that the agency is following a policy developed in 1994 to solicit independent peer review of proposed listing determinations.
“Our peer review process is fully compliant with the information quality guidelines established by OMB (Office of Management and Budget),” he said.
The report is part of an effort by House Republicans to rein in the Endangered Species Act, shifting more of the protection responsibilities to the states. The lower chamber in July adopted legislation requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to publish its collected information on new endangered species listing and submit annual reports to Congress. The Senate has not yet reciprocated.
Earlier this month Congress approved, and President Obama signed, a $1.1 trillion spending package that included language barring the Department of the Interior from funding efforts to protect either the Gunnison sage-grouse or the greater sage-grouse, which were found to be threatened under the act – meaning the agency believes unless steps are taken the species faces the possibility of extinction. Colorado has notified the agency of its intention to stop the designation from being implemented.
About 5,000 Gunnison sage-grouse breeding birds live in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the rider on the spending bill will not affect efforts to develop and implement federal and state plans that conserve sagebrush habitat or to complete the requisite analysis for potential rulemaking.
“It’s disappointing that some members of Congress are more interested in political posturing than finding solutions to conserve the sagebrush landscape and the Western way of life,” Jewell said. “Rather than helping the communities they profess to benefit, these members will only create uncertainty, encourage conflict and undermine the unprecedented progress that is happening throughout the West.”