GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Seven federal fisheries scientists filed a complaint Monday claiming their supervisor censored their research into the water needs of threatened Klamath Basin salmon because it was viewed by others as biased, violating an Obama administration policy prohibiting political manipulation of science by the federal government.
The whistleblower protection organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said it filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Interior Office of the Executive Secretariat and Regulatory Affairs on behalf of seven fisheries scientists at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation office in Klamath Falls.
"Requiring that science be non-controversial is like ordering your omelet made with uncracked eggs," PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said in a statement. "Scientific differences are supposed to be addressed through consultation, not suppressed by bullying and threats."
The Klamath Basin has long been locked in an intense political struggle over sharing scarce water between threatened and endangered fish and a federal irrigation project. A drought in 2001 forced the bureau to shut off most water for the Klamath Reclamation Project, which straddles the Oregon-California border south of Klamath Falls, to preserve water for threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River and endangered suckers in the project's main reservoir.
The complaint alleges Klamath Basin Area Office Manager Jason Phillips took steps to transfer the seven scientists and assign their work to the U.S. Geological Survey, because he felt that other agencies and interested parties in the Klamath Basin viewed their research as inherently biased in favor of the bureau, "producing scientific work only to prove other agencies wrong."
"Our fear is that professionalism has become hazardous to our careers inside Reclamation," Keith Schultz, one of the seven scientists, said in a statement. "We hope this complaint will make a difference in allowing other scientists to come forward and be truthful about science."
Phillips issued a statement saying the Klamath Area Office frequently reviews operations to make the best use of resources, and the proposed change concerning the fisheries scientists met that goal. He said no one will lose their job.
The complaint says Phillips noted the NOAA Fisheries Service, which oversees protection of salmon, raised concerns over a life-cycle model the scientists produced on the coho salmon, a threatened species. NOAA Fisheries has set minimum flows, controlled by the bureau, down the Klamath River to protect the coho. The life-cycle model suggested that flows in the Klamath River were less important than flows in tributaries, which are not controlled by the bureau. The complaint says the model was never published.
The scientists also produced research showing a stable population of endangered suckers in Lake Ewauna, previously considered a dead zone, the complaint said, forcing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-evaluate its strategy for saving the suckers from extinction.
"It appears clear that Mr. Phillips and those other officials involved in his threats are reacting to the political interagency 'problems' associated with the scientific work of the Fisheries Resources Branch — not the quality, integrity or value of that scientific work," the complaint said. "This type of coercive and obstructive activity cuts to the core of the very reason for the (Department of Interior) Scientific Integrity policies."
The Obama administration adopted the policy prohibiting political manipulation of science following findings that during the Bush administration, politics influenced the application of science in endangered species management.