Monday, August 17, 2009

The Key Deer Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is Invalid for Non-compliance with the Information Quality Act.

The Florida Key deer were listed as an endangered species in 1967. Since then, the herd has increased in numbers and the individual deer have become heavier and healthier today than they were in 1970. See Harveson, et al., "Impacts of urbanization on Florida Key deer behavior and population dynamics," 134 Biological Conservation 321-331 (2007), available at Harveson, et al., concluded Key deer prefer urbanized habitat on Big Pine Key, and that, in 2003, they were 10% heavier than those living in 1973.

On July 9, 2006, the State of Florida and Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, obtained an "incidental take permit" (ITP) from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS), ostensibly to protect the Key deer and the Playboy bunny (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri) from the ravages of human civilization. The only "scientific" basis for the ITP is an April 2006 Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), prepared by Monroe County and the State of Florida.

The HCP relies solely on a chapter on population viability analysis (PVA), that the HCP's authors apparently lifted directly from Dr. Roel Lopez's 2001 Ph.D. dissertation, "Population Ecology of Florida Key Deer," Texas A&M University 2001. PVA calculations have become popular with conservation biologists, in part because there are at least five "canned" computer programs that will spit out apparent "results" without any regard for their accuracy -- or lack thereof.

The consensus amongst the mathematically capable is that one cannot obtain reliable extinction probabilities unless one has collected 5 to 10 years of data for every year to be projected; i.e., to project survival probabilities 50 years in the future, one would need 250 to 500 years of field data on the species in question. (The answer is "no," he did not have adequate data to calculate a PVA.) Dr. Lopez's 50- and 100-year PVA projections are subject to such huge error ranges that the means (or medians, as in the dissertation) are meaningless. Ergo, we have a classic nonsensical theory, "garbage in, garbage out," and a herd of bureaucrats depriving thousands of humans of their land and fortune (though the Key deer thrive in a developed environment).

Fortunately, an obscure federal statute prohibits the use of "garbage in, garbage out" theories in federal programs. Sec. 515(a) of Pub. L. 106-554 (2001), requires all Federal agencies to develop policies and procedures for "ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information" produced by said agencies.

Sec. 515(a) is known as the "Information Quality Act (IQA)," or by some agencies, the "Data Quality Act (DQA)." As OMB stated in its Federal Register Notice on the IQA regulations, 67 Fed. Reg. 8452-60 (Feb 22, 2002), when scientific information (data and analytical results) is relied on by a federal agency, "the original and supporting data shall be generated, and the analytical results shall be developed, using sound statistical and research methods."

Data and analytical results must be subjected to "peer review." In the scientific community, peer review involves submitting one's research to a respected scientific journal, where a scientist-editor will select (usually three) reviewers who regularly publish papers in the same field as the paper to be reviewed, to critically review and comment on the submission. Comments flow back and forth among the author, the editor, and the reviewers, and the paper is ultimately either published, published as modified, or rejected.

By now you have figured out that Ph.D. dissertations (including mine, in 1969) are not "peer reviewed," and do not qualify as "good science" under the 2001 Information Quality Act. Dr. Lopez purposely broke his dissertation into discrete chapters, each of which could stand on its own. He submitted individual chapters to scientific journals for peer review and, hopefully, publication. From 2002 through 2006, according to his curriculum vitae, Dr. Lopez was the senior author on five peer reviewed papers on Key deer, and a co-author on eight more. To his credit, NOT ONE of these 13 peer-reviewed papers (that's a lot!) mentions the PVA in his dissertation. I assume Dr. Lopez recognized the weaknesses in his computer-driven PVA, and published his strength, rather than canned PVA numbers.

So what's next? A reasonable move would be a petition to the USF&WS to rescind the 2006 Incidental Take Permit. The Service's IQA rules require it to respond to such a petition within 90 days after receipt of a petition from an "affected person." The rules also provide for an internal appeal, submitted within 21 days of the initial decision, if petitioner is not satisfied with the Service's response. The appeal must be completed within 60 days. If a petitioner is not satisfied with that decision, he or she may bring an action, against the Service, in federal court.