Feds accused of purging independent gray wolf panel

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List and letting states manage the animal.

Three wolf researchers were removed from a review panel based on their public criticism of a federal plan to turn management of the wolf over to states.

Federal officials apparently ordered a purge of an independent science panel tasked with reviewing whether gray wolves should come off the Endangered Species List, a move the federal government supports.

Three prominent independent wolf researchers — Roland Kays, John Vucetich and Robert Wayne — were removed from the review team based on their public criticism of the federal plan. They specialize in different areas of wildlife research, but they have one thing in common: In a May 21 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, they questioned the scientific basis for a plan to turn wolf management over to states.

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Shortly after being picked for the review team, the private contractor amec, which is running the review project, told the scientists they were off the panel because they had signed the letter, along with 13 other scientists.

In an email sent to the men on Wednesday, amec scientist Melissa Greulich wrote: "I understand how frustrating it must be, but we have to go with what the service wants," a reference to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's concern about potential conflict-of-interest issues associated with the scientists who signed the critical letter.

Fish and Wildlife expertscharged withadministering the review said the fact that the scientists took a position on the plan was inconsistent with the agency's scientific integrity policies.

The head of a government watchdog group said the last-minute removal of the three scientists confirms that Fish and Wildlife did exercise veto power over the review panel, despite the agency's claims that it left the choice to the contractor.

“To avoid dealing with the serious scientific concerns ... the Fish & Wildlife Service is packing the review panel for its own proposal,” Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in a statement.

“Selecting your own reviewers defeats the purpose of independent peer review," Ruch said.

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One of the purged scientists said he thinks the process is politically driven.

"What I understand happened is, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the contractor you can't pick anybody that's on that list," said Vucetich, a professor at Michigan Technical University who has spent his career studying wolves. He was referring to the letter signed by the scientists who disagree with turning gray wolf management over to states.

The federal wolf proposal doesn't reflect the best available science and fails to measure up to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, Vucetich said.

"The Service did not request that any particular scientists be excluded from participation as peer reviewers for the agency's gray wolf proposals," Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire told MSN via email. Shire said the agency doesn't know who the panelists are in advance of the final selection.

Gray wolves were wiped out in the Lower 48 states by the middle of the 20th century. Today they live in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, with a small population just taking hold in the Pacific Northwest. Currently, all those populations are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 1,600 wolves in the northern Rockies and 4,400 in the western Great Lakes region.

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