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As Trump Takes Power, Scientists Scramble to Secure Wildlife Data

Climate research isn’t the only information imperiled by the incoming administration.

By Jimmy Tobias


(Photo: Jussi Nukari/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent weeks, archivists, academics, and other ardent information activists have frantically sought to preserve and protect federal climate science before Donald Trump takes power in Washington. Leading the way is the University of Pennsylvania’s DataRefuge project, which is conducting a nationwide campaign to save and copy massive government data sets that contain critical information about our changing climate. Leaders of this effort fear that such data could disappear from federal websites when the president-elect’s administration gains control of government agencies.

But climate science isn’t the only potential victim. DataRefuge organizers, along with allies like the Union of Concerned Scientists, are equally worried about other forms of federal environmental research.

“There is no reason to think its efforts would be restricted to climate data alone,” says Gretchen Goldman, the research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

Goldman stresses the vulnerability of wildlife science, particularly research by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that pertains to endangered, threatened, or otherwise imperiled species.

“Climate data is very politicized but there are lots of people looking at that data all the time, so if you change something within hours people would know,” she says. “There are just a lot more eyes on climate, whereas with federal endangered species science there are a smaller number of people looking at it and there are fewer data.”

The Republican Party is deeply averse to the Endangered Species Act and the science that supports it. In the last Congress, Republicans launched more than 100 legislative attacks on the Endangered Species Act. Over the years, they’ve sought to strip or delay federal protections for species such as grey wolves, lesser-prairie chickens, and northern long-eared bats; prevent federal conservation of the greater sage grouse, which resides on Western lands rich in oil and gas; and weaken the influence of federal wildlife science in listing decisions.

This wildlife hostility will only intensify now that the party controls all three branches of government. In order to dismantle the Endangered Species Act, Republicans could tamper with quality federal wildlife data. Should that happen, without good science, many of our country’s most important environmental laws would essentially become meaningless.

Goldman and her team at UCS, as well their DataRefuge compatriots, are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Fears about the future of federal wildlife research are rooted in precedent. During the George W. Bush years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service engaged in scientific misconduct and data tampering on multiple occasions. In one instance, the agency allegedly used flawed data to “facilitate proposed development” in endangered Florida panther habitat. In another, it deleted important economic data pertaining to the conservation of bull trout, a threatened species in the American West. In still another instance, the agency skewed data in a cost-benefit analysis in order to reduce the federally protected critical habitat of the threatened red-legged frog by more than 90 percent. These are just a few examples out of many.

To prevent a recurrence of bureaucratic vandalism, UCS and DataRefuge are creating a fortress of sorts for Fish and Wildlife Service science.

DataRefuge is in the process of accumulating a complete list of every species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

UCS, meanwhile, is scouring Fish and Wildlife Service websites for scientific information about controversial species that have been subjected to right-wing political attacks in recent years. For example, Goldman says that UCS is storing all of the scientific studies, peer review commentary, maps, and other data-intensive documents that the FWS used to grant the wolverine a “proposed threatened” status. Should Trump’s administration seek to unjustly alter the wolverine’s ESA designation in coming years, UCS will have the data needed to fight back.

UCS is also compiling a record of important agency policies. During its eight years in office, the Obama administration developed a number of new protocols meant to shore up scientific integrity across the federal government, including at the Fish and Wildlife Service. It established a policy, to name one, that explicitly allows FWS scientists to share their personal opinions and views directly with the public, without prior approval.

“That was a really big gain,” Goldman says. “We want to make sure that is maintained.” By preserving Obama-era policies as originally written, she says, UCS will be able to accurately track any Trump-era degradations.

For the moment, UCS is only archiving data and policies for internal use. If information begins to disappear from government websites, however, the group plans to make its archived material available for public perusal. The DataRefuge project is making its salvaged data accessible to public users from the outset.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that Trump and his team will suppress federal data or politicize government research agencies or silence scientists or rollback sensible policies or gut environmental laws. There’s no guarantee that the incoming administration means what it’s been saying. Still, the advocates and citizens who are laboring to protect our public science see their work as a matter of prudence. When a flood’s coming, it never hurts to have a boat.