Winkelman NRCD Invokes the Data Quality Act

Coordination Works | October 15, 2010 | Margaret Byfield--

Last Friday, the Winkelman Natural Resource Conservation District held an important coordination meeting with Region 2, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Phoenix, Arizona, over the potential listing of the Sonoran Desert Tortoise.

The environmental group, Wild Earth Guardians, sued the Service in 2008, to have the tortoise listed under the Endangered Species Act.  Currently, the Regional office is reviewing the State office’s recommendation as to whether or not the tortoise warrants protection.

The environmental group is pushing for the listing of the species because they want to end livestock grazing in Arizona, a long held goal of the environmental movement.  But the science points to the opposite conclusion.  The most comprehensive scientific study conducted on the Sonoran Desert Tortoise population shows that livestock grazing does not impact the species.

Fortunately, Winkelman Chairman Bill Dunn had been studying the coordination strategy for several years.  When the environmentalist filed their case, the Winkelman District initiated coordination with the Service.  Friday’s meeting was the third held to discuss the tortoise listing.

In the first meeting, Winkelman presented the Service with an 18-year study led by one of their cooperators and past board members Walt Meyer, an esteemed range scientist who initiated the study on his own largely because there was so little known about the tortoise.

The study surveyed a 23-square mile area where three different grazing techniques were used.  A strict protocol was used in gathering the data.  In the end, the study showed no impact to the species from livestock grazing, and that a primary impact had occurred years prior as people flocked to the desert to pick Jojoba berries.  As they camped, they relied on the tortoise for food.

The Meyer study was the best scientific information available and Winkelman District insisted that it be considered by the Service as they made their recommendation.  The District even prepared their own local conservation plan built upon the evidence gathered in the Meyer study.  The plan is being initiated throughout the District to ensure the species continues to thrive and the historic productive uses of the land continue.

During the second meeting, Winkelman brought in scientists to discuss and challenge the validity of the data provided by Wild Earth Guardians in their petition to list.  The conclusions the environmental group alleged were that the population was in decline. Winkelman’s experts attempted to reproduce the findings from the data cited, but found the information so incomplete that they could not reproduce the claims made by the environmental group.

In August of this year, the Service’s Arizona Field Office forwarded their listing recommendation to the Regional office.  Now that the recommendation has been made, regardless of what that decision is, Winkelman can seek to verify the credibility of the data the Service relied upon under the Data Quality Act passed by Congress in 2001. This was the focus of last Friday’s third coordination meeting.

The Data Quality Act was passed in order to ensure that federal agencies provide transparency to the process of developing data, reviewing it for veracity and credibility, and using it accurately and in an unbiased fashion.

This means that every report relied upon by the agency to make its tortoise recommendation must ensure and maximize the “quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of the information disseminated.”  In short, the Service must ensure every piece of evidence it uses to make its recommendation is verified to be accurate and true.

The Data Quality Act guidelines create a path for local governments like the Winkelman District to require disclosure and verification from the Service as to the validity of the data relied upon.

During the meeting, representatives from Winkelman asked the Service about specific data used, whether they were able to reproduce the data, what protocol was used to collect the data relied upon, why specific scientific reports were not relied upon, and how the Meyer study compared to others studies relied upon by the Service, among other questions.

The purpose of the meeting was not to challenge the recommendation, but rather to ensure the data used to base their decision on was of high quality and the best scientific information available, as required under the Data Quality Act and the Endangered Species Act.

In the meeting, they were able to learn that the data relied upon by the environmentalists in their petition to list had not been reproduced by the agency in order to verify its accuracy, but that the agency had learned that the protocol used in collecting the data was “diverse” and, in fact, had changed half way through the process.  In short, it was unreliable.

On December 5th, the public will learn of the Secretary of Interior’s decision.  If their decision is to list, the Winkelman District is in a position to challenge the listing.  If the decision is to not list, then they can expect the environmentalists to sue the Service, and Winkelman can intervene in the case and ensure the best available science prevails.

Environmental groups like Wild Earth Guardians are beginning to find their methods and practice of promoting unreliable science will be challenged.  Landowners learning to use the coordination process, like the Winkelman District, can now ensure that common sense and sound science is used when species are considered for listing.

The science does not warrant a listing of the Sonoran Desert Tortoise and thanks to the Winkelman District, the landowners in this case are no longer outside observers.

Learn more about the Data Quality Act.