- Louisa Willcox
The Grizzly Price of Public Service
Arnie Dood does not come across as an environmental crusader. Big, affable, a little on the goofy side, he dutifully worked as a wildlife biologist and manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MTFWP) for about 40 years… Until a few months ago when he paid the price of serving the larger public trust in an agency that, at the top, cares only about its financial and political hide. He got forced out.
Arnie was working on a plan for bison recovery, having moved on from grizzly bears, over which our paths first crossed several decades ago. In gathering public opinion, which was part of his job, he found that many Montanans were interested in possibilities to recover bison in suitable places where they were extirpated over a century ago. Arnie, who freely talks to anybody and everybody, personifies a public servant committed to a healthy public discourse. Because of the dialogue he and his agency initiated, people from across the state were talking about opportunities to bring back bison.
But his bosses were fearful of tangling with the state’s politically well-connected livestock interests who are notoriously hostile to bison. They did not want to continue the open public discussion (the kind you need to reach consensus and meaningful results) because they feared getting into hot water. Arnie had almost completed the plan when suddenly he learned that his position had been defunded. (link).
This is my experience of the wildlife management arena: the good guys, who care about the broader public interest have a tough time surviving. Too often, a small, thuggish minority of special interests prevail and are rewarded for being bullies and interfering with wildlife management to benefit themselves. Agency managers, like dogs that have been beaten, anticipate the lash from industry and curb their behavior, preventing staff from carrying out responsibilities to protect the resource or even to talk to the public about choices that are rightfully theirs.
I can count at least 25 career casualties -- that is about one well-meaning public servant sacrificed every year I worked as a professional conservationist.
What happens? They get silenced, demoted, intimidated, frozen out of decisions. Their responsibilities or research shrinks in scope. They are asked to relocate to the professional equivalent of Siberia. Their professional work is rewritten if it does not adequately accommodate the ethos of domination over nature. Or as in Arnie’s case, the money for their position or their work miraculously vaporizes.
Some go quietly and take other jobs. Some blow whistles. Some go a little nuts. Some take revenge. All seem scarred and disillusioned at some level. Because they went into public service to serve a purpose higher than themselves – and discovered that those who survive in government either have the spirit of transcendence and altruism knocked out of them, or never cared in the first place.
Here’s the rub: all of us need good people inside government. In a democratic society, we have entrusted the government to protect our interests. If the good guys can’t survive, we, bears, the planet are in a world of hurt. And right now, in the arena of imperiled species, those with public spirit are as endangered as the species they study or manage.
To me, the fact that Arnie and I do not agree on everything is not important. (For example, we disagree on removing ESA protections for grizzly bears). What matters is that Arnie cares about something bigger than himself, tries to figure out problems, and has good ideas about how to create shared processes towards species recovery. He is right when he says that species recovery is a process, a creative dialogue with people learning together, not just a plan – a document you start, finish and put away.
For example, Arnie wrote into the Southwest Montana Grizzly Bear Plan a provision calling for “pilot” coexistence projects to foster learning about how to live with grizzly bears. It was a great idea, because there is very little learning currently occurring about how to co-exist with bears. This is especially important on the periphery of the ecosystem, in habitat needed to connect the long-isolated Yellowstone grizzly bears to other populations. Without knowledge of nonlethal alternatives to killing, conflicts tend to lead inexorably to dead bears. Unfortunately, after Arnie moved to other work this idea was abandoned, because community work is expensive and time-consuming and also because (frankly) it is easy for some people to just shoot a bear that gets into trouble.
Arnie’s commitment to the public trust was put to a test when I was thrown out of a grizzly bear meeting in 1999. (Yes that dates us). I had been reassured by the Forest Service’s Regional Forester Dale Bosworth that meetings about the post-delisting Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, which had long been closed to the public by Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator Chris Servheen, would now be open. So, a colleague and I went to a planning meeting, where we were promptly thrown out by Servheen.
Arnie and Kurt Alt of MTFWP walked out with us. Arnie told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “It’s our feeling if we can’t operate in the light of public scrutiny, we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing” (Bozeman Chronicle editorial). In essence, Arnie and Kurt were upholding the principles of democracy, which have long been ignored in the circles of grizzly bear management. While the press gave Arnie and Kurt high praise (Billings Gazette editorial), the point seemed to have been lost on most grizzly bear managers.
As I said, Arnie Dood’s story is not an isolated case. The grizzly bear arena, which is especially spiteful, is littered with casualties. There is the story of Jane Roybal, a biologist who worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and did her best for grizzly bears and the public trust. But she lacked support in Wyoming where the oil and gas industry rules. She was basically stabbed in the back by Servheen, who with others at USFWS, rewrote several of her opinions to favor industry.
Then there was Cary Hunt, biologist for the Shoshone Forest, who unsuccessfully tried to apply science about the effects of roads on grizzly bears, in the face of a resistant agency which was captive to the logging industry that it regulated and served by a thuggish District Ranger.
There was also Timm Kaminski, biologist for the Bridger Teton Forest, who did not even have the Forest Supervisor’s support to finish the report that he wrote in 2001 on results of a task force charged with looking into hunter-caused grizzly bear mortality. (I wrote about this report in last week’s blog). Among other things, the report called for more agency field personnel to improve compliance with food storage requirements as well as hunters’ understanding of bear behavior. The unsustainable escalation of grizzly bear mortalities on the forest and elsewhere in Greater Yellowstone in recent years is proof that more still needs to be done.
Then there was Nancy Kehoe, whose masters’ thesis data were falsified by her academic advisor Servheen. He eliminated a few dead bears from her tiny data set to satisfy the demands of politically well-connected loggers and others Servheen did not want to upset. She gave me her original files, which live in our basement, when she went into a Buddhist monastery after the bullying she suffered from within the agency and from well-connected developers and their elected officials during a stint in the USFWS’s endangered species program.
Sarah Jane Johnson, former biologist for the Targhee and Gallatin National Forests, reacted differently to the tactics of intimidation. She made her subsequent career challenging logging decisions by the Forest Service. And she is incredibly skilled and successful at it (Go Sarah!).
Lastly, there is my husband Dr. David Mattson, whose story is included in Todd Wilkinson’s Science Under Siege. He learned the hard way just how nasty the Forest Service and USFWS can be when research unearths inconvenient results, such as the problematic impacts of logging roads on grizzly bears. He survived in spirit better than some, and would enjoy being the retired science guy if the threats and injustices did not bother him so much.
You may wonder why Servheen’s name has cropped up several times in this piece. As US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for nearly four decades, he has authored and otherwise driven numerous decisions that would have damaged grizzly bears and their habitat but for successful lawsuits brought by wildlife advocates. He has destroyed a number of careers of those who defended, or attempted to defend, grizzly bears and the public trust.
Unfortunately, Servheen embodies the kind of person who tends to flourish in power positions in our current state and federal wildlife management agencies. He could not be more different from Arnie Dood, Jane Roybal, and Sara Jane Johnson. It is not surprising that 12 tribes, who have radar for arrogance and paternalism, have called for his removal (link).
It is outrageous that well-meaning public servants who care about the public trust are punished and not praised by the institutions they work for – and those who harm others (not to mention the voiceless beings they are charged with protecting) are rewarded.
But the problem is fundamentally not a personal one, but related to pathologies built into the management institutions themselves -- their cultures, funding, and systems of internal and external rewards and disincentives (link). The path to reform is difficult but achievable, and is based on a reinvigoration of democratic principles (link).
Recognizing that the current system is despotic and dysfunctional is an essential baby step to the larger challenge of reform of our wildlife and wildland management institutions.