Washington, DC — President Obama’s nominee to lead the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service did not protect science from political interference or scientists from retaliation, according to a survey of his employees conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Last week, the White House announced its intent to nominate Sam Hamilton to head the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which has been the focus of intense criticism for allowing political officials to improperly alter scientific findings.
For the past dozen years, Sam Hamilton has overseen the 10-state FWS Southeastern Region of the Fish & Wildlife Service, home to endangered species ranging from the American crocodile to the Florida panther. In 2005, PEER surveyed more than 1,400 FWS biologists, ecologists and botanists working on Endangered Species Act and other wildlife protection programs across the country. Those survey results for scientists working within Hamilton’s region found that –
- Nearly half (49%) of FWS respondents cited cases where “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention”;
- A similar percentage (46%) said they had been “directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making . . . findings that are protective of species”; and
- More than a third (36%) feared “retaliation” for merely expressing “concerns about the biological needs of species and habitats” and a similar number felt they were “not allowed to do my job as a scientist”.
“Where was Sam Hamilton when all this was going on?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch noting that Hamilton did not inquire or request any investigation into widespread complaints by his staff. “Why would anyone expect Mr. Hamilton to protect scientists when he previously has not?”
A prime example illustrating this concern is the manipulation of science by Hamilton’s leadership team to green-light sprawl in shrinking panther habitat. In 2005, the FWS Director under Bush, Steve Williams, rebuked Hamilton’s region for making false assumptions designed to inflate panther numbers and viability, in response to a formal complaint by PEER and an FWS panther biologist. Hamilton took no disciplinary action against any of his managers and several of the scientific deficiencies persist today.
The White House announcement cited Hamilton’s record for “delivering significant wildlife conservation” but his employees reflect a less positive view:
- More than two thirds (68%) did not feel the region was “acting effectively to maintain or enhance species and their habitats, so as to avoid possible listings under the Endangered Species Act” and
- Less than one in four (24%) believed that Hamilton would “stand up for scientific staff or supervisors who take controversial stands”.
One FWS supervisor succinctly summed up what Hamilton’s operation needs this way:
“More backbone, less dog-and-pony show…”
In the PEER national survey, Hamilton’s region ranked better than some and worse than others on key issues. More than one in four (29%) of all FWS ecological scientists participated in the survey.
“Hamilton’s record as a senior official does not offer much to brag on,” Ruch added. “We hope the Senate, particularly its Democratic members, look carefully into this record and interview employees.”