Two supervisors at the Fish and Wildlife Service purposely ignored staff concerns in order to shrink the habitat of the endangered American burying beetle, committing scientific misconduct of a "serious and intentional nature," according to newly released internal documents.
The documents provide new details on the scientific integrity cases against Dixie Porter and Luke Bell, who worked in the Oklahoma Ecological Services Field Office. Porter was the field supervisor, while Bell was the branch chief of threatened and endangered species and contaminants.
The habitat map was part of a preliminary assessment of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline's effect on the endangered beetle. Porter and Bell used flawed methods to create a smaller -- and consequently more industry-friendly -- range for the insect. It was never used in any Keystone XL assessment, due to the misconduct finding.
An FWS spokesman declined to comment on the case or provide any information on Porter's and Bell's current positions. But an employee directory from December -- months after the misconduct finding -- shows them in the same supervisory roles.
"The FWS completed its review and made recommendations for appropriate disciplinary and corrective actions," FWS spokesman Chris Tollefson said in an email. "Because these recommendations are subject to further review and negotiations of a privileged nature, we are unable to comment further."
News of the misconduct became public in August, when the Interior Department's inspector general released a "management alert" that criticized FWS Director Dan Ashe for not reprimanding Porter and Bell after they retaliated against the biologists who uncovered their misconduct (E&E Daily, Aug. 1, 2013).
At the time, IG officials did not name Porter and Bell, nor did FWS. An FWS official gave Greenwire the basic details of the case, but the agency denied a Freedom of Information Act request for the full scientific integrity reports (Greenwire, Aug. 8, 2013).
Today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released redacted versions of the reports and their summaries, after Interior's Office of the Solicitor granted its FOIA appeal. The reports detail numerous scientific integrity violations -- the first such findings since Interior implemented a scientific integrity policy more than two years ago.
Among other things, a Scientific Integrity Review Panel found that Porter and Bell intentionally chose a spatial model to come up with a range map for the burying beetle that did not meet FWS's policy "for reasonably erring on the side of the species." They aimed to replace the current range map -- which uses county lines -- with a model that shrank the insect's range by 25 percent, or about 4.5 million acres, in Oklahoma.
But the model had problems. Among other things, Porter and Bell applied it incorrectly, using nonrandom data when the model assumed random data, according to the panel.
Employees in the office soon filed a complaint alleging scientific misconduct, prompting the scientific integrity officer at FWS to convene a review panel consisting of a regional office branch chief, an FWS biologist, an employee from the U.S. Geological Survey and a former regional director.
FWS officials have said they withdrew the new map immediately. If they had not, it would have been used to determine whether further surveys needed to be conducted on the Oklahoma portion of the KXL pipeline.
The agency reverted to the old, larger map, which triggered further surveys. It's unclear whether Porter and Bell's map would have prompted the same review, given its smaller footprint.
Misleading the public
In its report, the scientific integrity panel describes an office atmosphere that did not welcome constructive criticism. Employees avoided "negative feedback" on anything related to the burying beetle for fear of getting reprimanded. Indeed, Porter and Bell suspended some employees -- who still have those suspensions on their records, according to PEER.
"[A]t times, Luke Bell would coordinate with individual staff to get input into the justification rationale for the new ... range map but the objective seemed to be an affirmation of his analysis rather than the soliciting of any appropriate constructive criticism," the panel wrote. "If that affirmation didn't occur, Luke Bell would react negatively."
Porter and Bell would also exclude certain staff members from discussions and restrict the ability of staff to meet to discuss the scientific issues, the panel found.
The result was a map that excluded areas with suitable habitat for the burying beetle, including some areas where the beetles had been sighted.
Even after FWS withdrew the new map -- and the scientific integrity investigation began -- Porter and Bell continued to tout its use. They published an article in The Open Entomology Journal, writing that the decreased range would lead to "greater precision for conservation of the [beetle], more targeted conservation efforts, and reduced costs to other federal agencies and industry that are required to have minimal impact to this endangered species under the [Endangered Species Act]."
The article prompted yet another scientific integrity investigation. The resulting report harshly criticizes Porter and Bell for publishing the article when they knew about the scientific misconduct allegations -- and were aware that FWS officials had withdrawn the map.
The article may mislead project proponents, who could see it as the best available science, according to the report. Some may rely on the smaller map and decide that their projects won't affect the beetle at all, sidestepping FWS and regulatory actions, the panel warned.
"Such unregulated effects are likely to further degrade the endangered status of the ABB in Oklahoma. At the very least, the availability of the 2013 paper is likely to confuse the public and undermine credible ESA regulatory activities for the ABB in Oklahoma," the panel wrote, later adding, "Their action directly undermines the scientific application of endangered species policy throughout Oklahoma."
The panel recommended that the article be withdrawn. FWS officials have not taken that step, and the article is still available today.
The panel also found problems with the peer review process Bell used to finalize the new map. Instead of soliciting experts, he used only FWS staff that helped develop the map and one of the authors of the article.
That process, the panel found, "does not even minimally meet current peer review standards."
Slow to react
It's unclear what FWS officials have done to rectify the situation. Mary Kendall, Interior's deputy IG, sent Secretary Sally Jewell a management alert in July 2013 outlining how Porter and Bell -- then unnamed -- retaliated against the biologists who filed the initial scientific integrity complaint.
IG officials conducted a months-long investigation that found the supervisors had retaliated against the biologists by cutting their pay and changing their duties. The IG's office engaged in "months of pointed discussions and stern warnings" with Ashe and other FWS officials, but nothing was done to reprimand the supervisors.
In August, Ashe told Greenwire that the agency was still determining the extent of the supervisors' retaliation against three biologists who exposed the scientific misconduct (Greenwire, Aug. 2, 2013). FWS declined to comment for this article on whether any action has been taken.
Steve Hardgrove, the IG's chief of staff, said the office is "unaware of any resolution to the matter."
FWS officials have said they reprimanded Porter and Bell for the scientific integrity violations. That included not just the transgressions related to the beetle map but also a separate finding of a "loss of scientific integrity" in a mussel study. That investigation found that one of them ordered staff to move a monitoring case from a suspected contaminant source at the request of a private company.
FWS has not released that report, but the Office of the Solicitor has directed officials to reconsider that decision, making it possible the report will be released in the coming weeks.
PEER asserts that the whistle-blowers still haven't gotten any relief. Porter still remains in her position, while Bell will soon take a position at Magellan Midstream Partners LP, which owns a petroleum pipeline, according to PEER.
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch put the blame on Ashe.
"As it stands now, scientists who report scientific misconduct jeopardize their careers because the agency hierarchy stands by the violators," he said.
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