The Endangered Art of Compromise
12:00 am
Mon June 4, 2012

Dueling Scientists

The Endangered Species Act is a document based on science.  Mostly. 

When it comes to whether or not a species gets listed, the law is very clear, thanks to a 1982 amendment adding one key word...

BASIS FOR DETERMINATIONS.—(1)(A) The Secretary shall make determinations required by subsection (a)(1) solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available to him...

 

That's not the case, however, when it comes to designating critical habitat...

(2) The Secretary shall designate critical habitat, and make revisions thereto, under subsection (a)(3) on the basis of the best scientific data available and after taking into consideration the economic impact, and any other relevant impact, of specifying any particular area as critical habitat...

No wonder endangered species issues make for dramatic stories...the tension is guaranteed before the setting or characters are even revealed! 

Of course, even if the ESA was based entirely on science, we humans would find a way to interject ourselves, regardless.  And it goes both ways.  Conservationists like to pick on "scientists for hire" (or, less kindly, "biostitutes").  These are researchers who will, supposedly, find results to match the desires of their funders, be they industry reps, politicians, or otherwise.  The idea is that, with science as the foundation of so many endangered species decisions, it becomes the first obvious point of attack for the opposition.  This is what Rio Grande Restoration Executive Director Steve Harris is getting at in the audio here when he talks about the Collaborative Program's Biological Opinion process being headed for a case of "dueling scientists."  Data about river flow as it relates to the life cycles and breeding patterns of Silvery Minnow becomes critically important when the ultimate question is how often the river should be allowed to dry out. What happens when that data differs?

But conservationists are not entirely innocent in the playing-with-science realm themselves.  Sure, the Endangered Species Act is intended to protect ecosystems as well as the imperiled species that live there.  But sometimes there seems to be an attempt to use the ESA as a blunt instrument (we heard the word "hammer" more than once in our reporting) to save ecosystems when they may not actually house any species in danger.  While some people view this as an economically threatening use of the ESA, even some conservation-minded scientists express concern that this kind of unintended use has the potential to weaken the Act in the long run by opening it up to legitimate criticism.