Sunday, 12 April 2009 02:10

Political agendas and Nevada biologists, Part I

Written by Ira Hansen
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How free of politics is science? During a legislative hearing this past Wednesday, the idea of not allowing laymen - in this case the nine members of the Nevada State Wildlife Commission - to have mandatory authority over a "professional biologist" was debated.

The opponents claimed the Wildlife Commission may be tainted by political considerations, implying the director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife (the professional) is somehow above the fray.

Since the director of NDOW is himself a political appointee, the argument is absurd on its face. But it raises a more serious question: How free of bias, of political agendas, is "science?"

Several glaring cases of deliberate manipulation to further a political agenda come to mind on the national level. The most easy and undeniable involves the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose "professional" biologists were found guilty of "planting" evidence, in one case Canadian lynx hair and another of grizzly bear fur. Using this falsified data in conjunction with the Endangered Species Act would have given them near total authority over state decision-making. It would have been the Spotted Owl disaster repeated.

Here in Nevada a similar deception has occurred and involves NDOW biologists, specifically Tony Wasley, author of a supposedly "scientific" study titled "Mule Deer, Population Dynamics, Issues and Influences." This publication, promoted by NDOW since 2004 as the bible of deer biology, has some glaringly obvious omissions - most notably a total absence of the impact of mountain lions, which of course eat mule deer - but the intentional deception is equally graphic, although without some digging much more difficult to discern.

Several graphs, accompanied by a discussion of the impact on deer by coyotes, are intentionally misleading. They claim the graphs include very important and easily accessible information, namely the yearly total number of coyotes killed here in Nevada. The bulk of coyotes taken for many years is by "Wildlife Services," the modern name for government trappers.

The caption under the lead paragraph says "Coyote take includes sport harvest and WILDLIFE SERVICES ACTIVITIES" (emphasis added).

When I first reviewed this report in 2005 I noted this possible error and sent them a request to double check their information. Although verbally promised a response, to date this same bogus information is still used. That changes a possibly honest mistake into a grotesque intentional distortion of the truth. The "scientific" information and resultant discussion leaves out a yearly average of 6,000 coyotes - in some years almost four times greater than the numbers reported.

When the corrected data is entered the claim that coyotes have questionable impact is strongly reversed. In fact it shows a powerful correlation between the much disparaged "predator control" efforts and deer harvest.

The difference may sound minor, but coming from a supposedly carefully put together "scientific" publication it is in fact a huge error at best, a politically motivated attack on predator control at worst. Leaving out an average of 6,000 additional coyotes per year shows either gross incompetence or, like the lynx and grizzly example, calculated, politically motivated lies. It is equivalent to doing a "scientific" report on weather in Nevada and leaving out snow.

Nor is this an isolated example. Former NDOW biologist Dave Ashman, in a letter to the editor in the Elko Daily Free Press, wrote: "As a biologist on a mountain lion study in central Nevada several years ago, evidence was found to support the theory that deer populations were lower than the habitat could support. It was thought that below a certain point or threshold, lions could prevent the deer population from reaching carrying capacity. There was sufficient summer and winter food available to allow for a larger deer herd. It appeared predation from mountain lions may have kept deer numbers at low levels. Unfortunately, due to the sensitive nature of these findings further study was not attempted by NDOW."

So, is "science" free of politics? You be the judge.

Ira Hansen is a lifelong resident of Sparks and owner of Ira Hansen and Sons Plumbing.

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