Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Center for Biological Diversity and its Repetitive Problems with Science

I would like to start this discussion with the admittal that I am sympathetic to many of the goals and actions of the Center for Biological Diversity. I have fully supported the Center when science is on their side, and I tend to oppose or reject the Center when they misuse or misunderstand or misappropriate science or take advice from weak scientists. It is important to remember that the Center for Biological Diversity is first and foremost a litigation specialist. They go to court with their attorneys and sue for this or that and they obtain money to staff their operations from the proceeds of lawsuits. I was told by one ornithologist that the Center had earned over $50 Million from such lawsuits in its history, which is amazing.

So, when the Center petitioned to list the California Burrowing Owl under the state Endangered Species Act, I fully supported the petition, as did most of the state's Burrowing Owl biologists. When the Center petitioned to list the Arizona Bald Eagle and then to keep it on the Federal Endangered Species list after the main continental population was delisted, I supported that petition publicly because I believed it was backed by the best available science and most of the best biologists of Arizona Bald Eagles.

On the other hand, I continue to be dismayed at the Center's continual petitions to list Northern Goshawks under Federal ESA. I once spoke directly to Martin Taylor, who at the time was a biodiversity coordinator of the Center, and he tactily admitted that the Northern Goshawk was being treated as a proxy by the Center for certain habitats which the Center really wanted to protect. In order to protect the habitat, the Center wanted to list the species. The only problem is that the evidence that the species is in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future or likely to become endangered is at best controversial, and at worst, scientifically indefensible. There is one goshawk researcher who supported listing under the theory that the Northern Goshawk is an old-growth forest obligate and since old-growth forest is hugely diminished in the U.S in various areas within the range of the goshawk, the goshawk must be in danger of extinction and must be listed. But other biologists believe that the goshawk, while using old growth forest extensively when it is available, are also able to reproduce and survive in second growth and other habitats and thus is not in danger of extinction. To me, the biological basis for listing must be a preponderance of evidence based on the best available science, and there is no consensus amongst goshawk biologists that a preponderance of evidence for goshawk listing exists. And yet the Center for Biological Diversity presses the issue as if the survival of the species is at stake. This agenda-driven ignoring of sound science harms the cause of conservation, in my opinon, by creating controversy for its own sake and by obfuscating the need for clear and strong science as such a serious issue as whether a species is at risk and needs special governmental protections.

Another situation where the Center for Biological Diversity is out of whack relates to Calfornia Condor conservation at the Tejon Ranch in southern California. The Tejon Ranch contains valuable condor habitat and some of the ranch area has been Federally designated as "critical habitat", which is a declared geographic area that can be modified within the management needs of the species as which is routinely done with endangered species of all sorts. In fact, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resource Defense Council and other organizations have negotiated with the Tejon Ranch with full knowledge and collaboration with the Federal Condor Recovery Team to exchange a relatively small portion of the designated "critical habitat" in exchange for a package of condor conservation measures that condor biologists feel would be a win-win situation for the condor and the ranch. The conservation organizations agreed, not to support development of the ranch, but they agreed not to sue to prevent development of that proposed area in exchange for the condor conservation package. Yet, somehow, the litigation-made Center for Biogical Diversity opposes the other conservation organizations and relies on the scientific guidance of former condor biologists who arte now clearly reversing their published views of condor welfare. It appears that the Center for Biological Diversity carefully screens their scientific advisors to match their agenda, which tends to be litigation-oriented and not necessarily directed towards the welfare of the species at stake.

This problem is especially acute in the Altamont Pass of California, where hundreds of raptors die in collisions with wind turbines each and every year. The Center for Biological Diversity has ignored the written opinions of some of the area's most experienced raptor biologists, including myself, in favor of a professional wildlifer/statistician who is the wildlife equivalent of a derivatives trader in the financial markets. Shawn Smallwood, PhD, entered the arena of Altamont Pass research with a mitigation agenda before he ever gathered his first sample of data. He proposed mitigation as "tried and proven" even though at best he could offer a hypothesis, and the Center for Biological Diversity bought his spiel, hook, line and sinker. As a result, the Center for Biological Diversity intitiated litigation against the County and the wind turbine companies that has led to mitigation that does not help raptors. Worse yet, the Center has fallen victim to a scientist whose methods are essentially unrepeatable and thus his baseline studies are unreliable and thus we cannot move forward with any confidence that the well-known problems are resolved or unresolved. We are left in a horrible limbo at the nexxus of weak science and weak conservation, and all because the Center for Biological Diversity saw a litigatioin opportunity in conjunction with their preferree scientist of choice.

For a person who loves raptors and cares deeply about their conservation, as I do, this is hugely disappointing. The blunders of the Center for Biological Diversity are consequential. They are unnecessary and they are repetitive. They diminish from the good that the Center for Biological Diversity has done and continues to do in other arenas.

Let's hope the Center gets its act together sooner rather than later, hires more competent people who know how to use real science to best conservation effect.

Stan Moore
Fairfax Raptor Research
P.O. Box 341
San Geronimo, CA 94963

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