DOI, Science and Politics: Ivory-billed Woodpecker vs. Sage Grouse Portend a Poor Future

The following paper of interest from the new issue of The Auk can be downloaded from the blog at [1]. It discusses peripheral issues related to quality of science and politics as related to recent sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas.

I would like to point out in this posting the consistency and the inconsistency of the Department of the Interior, which manages the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies under political leadership appointed by the anti-environmental, anti-conservation Bush Administration.

The principal consistency of the Bush administration, which can be seen manifesting itself in opposite mechanisms related to conservation decision-making, is to use (or I should say misuse) science to obtain political objectives in the realm of conservation. The "rediscovery" of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker offered a political bonus for the Bush Administration to claim that they must have been doing something right for the species to persist despite long-held belief of its extinction. Thus, despite scanty scientific evidence of poor quality that the bird did/does persist, the Bush Administration jumped into the exuberant celebration of the "rediscovery" and posed as if it was advancing conservation by expending funding to advance the habitat needs of the species. What the Bush administration did not tell the public, but which was revealed in the Jackson paper in the Auk is that no new funds were set aside for the Ivory-bill, but that funds were diverted from other conservation projects and endangered species to the new politically-advantageous situation regarding the woodpecker. In other words, poor science was readily accepted to enact questionably effective conservation measures for the sake of political gain.

On the other hand, the scientific evidence behind a justification for adding both the Gunnison Sage Grouse and the Greater Sage Grouse to the Federal list of endangered or threatened species was strong, perhaps undeniable if viewed from a biological or conservation perspective. So, again science was misused (or ignored in the case of sage grouse) in order to fulfill another political objective, resulting in a politically driven decision to not list either species. Sage Grouse listing in the sage biome would be just about as politically unpopular as rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker would be popular.

So, we see a consistency of the Bush Administration: use science for political gain or to prevent political disadvantage. The inconsistency also relates to science. In one case (Sage Grouse) strong scientific evidence was available and disregarded. In the other (Ivory-billed Woodpecker) only very weak scientific evidence was available, and it was adopted enthusiastically.

The same administration ignores consensus of the vast majority of the informed scientific community that global climate change poses a massive threat to all of human civilization. Interestingly, it seems likely that global climate change over time will negatively impact both the Sage Grouse species and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, assuming they persist when global climate change reaches its peak later in this century. Some experts predict that all sage grouse may be extinct by the middle of this century if past trends persist.

Some day, just a few decades down the road, historians, anthropologists, and ecologists may look back on the history of mankind and of the planet and will see our time and our current Federal administration as the lynchpin for the final unraveling of our earthly biosphere, which will very likely be coupled with the disastrous collapse of our way of life and international civilization. That is exactly how serious the stakes are regarding proper use of scientific knowledge in management of our own civilization. We are failing a critical test by allowing this to happen and we will pay the price.