Article 16:

(Box) Will Scientific Rigor Always Protect Biodiversity?

By C. Ronald Carroll, University of Georgia

In the 2001 Federal General Appropriations Act, a seemingly beneficial law was included that received very little notice at the time. Public Law 106-554 (Data Quality Act; DQA) called for more scientific rigor from federal agencies when significant policy changes were involved. Every reasonable person would agree that strong science should inform conservation policy. In this light, then, it would seem reasonable that the federal Data Quality Act (aka Information Quality Act) should apply to the science that influences conservation policy. After all, the Act simply states that those scientific investigations that may substantially influence public policy decisions should meet high standards. Fair enough, but the Act goes on to elaborate on the meaning of high standards by saying that these investigations should meet high standards of experimental design, field investigation, and data analysis and interpretation. The results should be reproducible by a third party following similar methods. In many instances, these requirements may be beneficial and would improve the quality of conservation science. However, conservation scientists often deal with crisis situations such as rapidly declining populations, federally protected species, or the emergence of some critically important stressors such as a new disease that may cause havoc. In these situations, rigorous research standards such as are required by quality professional journals, may be completely unreasonable. Consider, for example, a biologist faced with trying to assemble the scientific justification to list a species that seems to be immanently imperiled. Long term population studies are not possible, experimental manipulation of the small existing population would seem unwise, and replicated sites may not exist. Under a strict interpretation of the DQA it could be very difficult to use a scientific investigation as the basis for listing the species for protection. An opposing group could seek court action as a “Challenge for Correction of Information” under the Act to stop a petition to list the species. Indeed, in September 2004 the Partnership for the West challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 90 day Finding for Petition to List the Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as a threatened or endangered species. In early January 2005 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that listing the Greater Sage Grouse was not warranted (USF&W News Release, January 7, 2005).

Whether or not the Greater Sage Grouse needs federal protection (there is considerable debate over estimates of population size), the important point is that the DQA provides a potentially powerful tool for opponents of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to block the listing process. Furthermore, these Challenges may create a perception in the minds of citizens and politicians that the ESA is propped up by poor science. This is clearly a situation where the National Academy of Sciences, as a highly respected and independent agency, together with the Ecological Society of America and the Society for Conservation Biology should provide guidance to the courts. The courts need to understand that there are reasonable limits to the level of scientific rigor that can be used to investigate potentially imperiled species. Given the irreversibility of extinction a precautionary approach is warranted.

Literature Cited

FWS 2005. Status Review Completed: Greater Sage-Grouse Not Warranted for Listing as Endangered or Threatened. News Release January 7, 2005