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Department Of The Interior’s Partners In Conservation Award

Department of the Interior’s Partners in Conservation Award given to scientifically incorrect snake report.

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In an apparent effort to avert attention from his Department’s dismal public image and failure to bring change, Secretary of the Interior’s Ken Salazar has just given the US Geological Survey (USGS) and their collaborators an award for the work done regarding constrictor snakes. The Giant Constrictor Risk Assessment Partnership, comprised of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and USGS, was given the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) highest award presented by the Secretary – Partners in Conservation Award.

The ongoing effort to create science in order to support policy preference is just another symptom of intellectual dishonesty and unchecked hubris within the DOI. This so-called “work” that has been awarded by the Secretary is controversial and riddled with inaccuracies that many of the world’s leading scientists in the field of reptiles, including other federal government agencies, have been critical of from day one.


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The action by the Secretary only leads to more questions about the motives behind this move by the DOI and its agencies. A move that has taken place in the middle of an ongoing public challenge and review being carried out by DOI under its obligation to comply with the federal Information Quality Act. Is the Secretary’s action here merely another example of a failure to bring change? Has he been bitten by the ongoing system of dishonesty within DOI’s scientific staff? Or is this another case of where policy has trumped science? It does raise the question, “Who is leading within the DOI?”

Upon review of DOI documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it has come to light that at the center of this controversy are Gordon Rodda and Robert Reed of the USGS. In coordination with Art Roybal of the FWS, they worked to create reports that would support an Injurious Wildlife listing under the Lacey Act for Boa, Python and Eunectes snake species. Roybal dictated to Rodda and Reed the specific criteria he would need in order for FWS to achieve the Injurious Wildlife listing under federal statute. Roybal directed the work of Rodda and Reed to the point that they became concerned about the appearance of impropriety. Nevertheless, Rodda and Reed produced two documents for Roybal’s Injurious Wildlife listing pursuit. One was a Climate Match, Rodda & Reed 2008, and one was a Risk Assessment, Rodda & Reed 2009. The basis for both reports is a climate data set that was so severely mischaracterized, it demonstrated incompetence and possibly intentional deception on behalf of the report’s authors, Barker & Barker 2010. It is not surprising that the report’s authors would not release the data set until compelled to under USARK’s FOIA request.

Thailand’s Natural History Museum’s Michael Cota stated in his public comment to FWS specific to the Rodda and Reed climate data set, “With a 60 percent error rate for just one country (Thailand), how many imaginary datasets were used for these reports?”

Soon after the release of the climate match report, it was challenged by a Niche Study, Pyron et al 2008, contradicting the supposition of Rodda and Reed that pythons would be spreading across the southern third of the United States. The Niche Study predicted that pythons would be limited to the southern tip of Florida and possibly the southern tip of Texas. The reality is that the pythons have struggled to survive even in south Florida. They exist nowhere else.

In response to the release of the risk assessment, myriad top academics from institutions such as the National Geographic Society, Arizona State University and the University of Florida (among others) called the integrity of the report into question. In a letter sent in early 2010 to the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee these scientists stated, “This report is not a bona-fide ‘scientific’ paper that has gone through external peer review.”

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Further, these experts expound that, “We are further concerned by the pervasive bias throughout this report. There is an obvious effort to emphasize the size, fecundity and dangers posed by each species; no chance is missed to speculate on negative scenarios. The report appears designed to promote the tenuous concept that invasive giant snakes are a national threat. However, throughout the report there is a preponderance of grammatical qualifiers that serve to weaken many, if not most, statements that are made.”

The final statement concludes, “This document is not suitable as the basis for legislative or regulatory policies, as its content is not based on best science practices.”

In 2010 there were three independent cold weather studies that stand in stark contradiction to the underlying climate study supporting the two USGS reports. There are actually four papers to convincingly describe how pythons exposed to critically low temperatures die. Barker 2008 related how pythons left heated refugia to crawl into snow and die and concluded that pythons and boas do not have the instincts and inclination to seek shelter from low temperatures. Seven of nine pythons in the US Department of Agriculture study of Avery et al 2010 left heated refugia to die in cold temperatures in central Florida. Nine of ten radio-tagged pythons in the study of Mazzotti et al. 2010 died in the Everglades; the tenth animal had to be rescued or it likely would have died, as well. Of the pythons in the study of Dorcas et al. 2010 conducted at the Savannah River Ecological Lab in Aiken, South Carolina, 100 percent died despite living in a large enclosure with a human-enriched habitat and numerous refugia. The bottom line is, between the three studies, 26 of 29 pythons studied succumbed to the cold. The three survivors were kept alive artificially and there is no reason to believe they would have survived if left exposed to the cold.

USARK has filed a formal Challenge of the USGS Risk Assessment, Rodda & Reed 2009, under the Information Quality Act in the form of a 36 page, 16 point Request for Correction. The official government response to it was written by Gordon Rodda, the USGS report author, and summarily dismissed as “no corrections necessary.” USARK has subsequently filed an 86 page appeal in an effort to hold the federal government accountable to its own rules and standards. USARK has clearly stated that the USGS failure to comply with its own policies and principles as well as the minimum statutory standard for the quality of information used in the report constitutes a failure to comply with the most fundamental requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).

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In a memo dated September 29, 2010, Secretary Salazar cautioned his agencies in regards to the integrity of science used to make policy. Recently, the Department’s own Inspector General brought into focus a new case of scientific tampering, this time specific to the moratorium on oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico. When does change come to DOI? Only when it makes national headlines? After the public and our environment are harmed?

In the case of the constrictor work, the USGS, the FWS, the NPS, and now with the awarded complacency for business as usual by the Secretary, USARK questions the ability of the Department’s political leadership to change. Therefore, having no confidence in the Secretary, we call upon the Department’s Inspector General to review our concerns and report to the public on its findings. Through this independent review, we hope that ultimately it leads to an end of pandering to powerful special interests, perpetuating bias, and maybe even a purge of misguided employees that have been serving their own interests. Who knows, maybe it will even prompt the Secretary to ask more questions in the future when his agencies push their own employees for his public commendation.

Andrew Wyatt is the President of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) and has been an avid herp enthusiast for more than 35 years. He has traveled the world and has had his animals featured in a number of television productions. For more information about USARK,click here.