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Biologists, Reclamation clash over jobs 

Fisheries vs. findings

by DEVAN SCHWARTZ, Herald and News 2/25/13

(Here for KBC News Scientific Misconduct Page)

As seven Bureau of Reclamation fisheries biologists face the possibility of their division’s closure in Klamath Falls, many are asking why.

A watchdog group and the biologists’ union claim there are political and scientific motivations. Reclamation says the decision was purely managerial.

In January, watchdog group Public Employees who Protect our Environment (PEER) filed a complaint of scientific and scholarly misconduct on behalf of the biologists. The biologists’ union also interceded by filing a grievance, an unfair labor practice charge and an information request. Both groups are asking that the biologist jobs remain intact and unaltered.

A Nov. 8 memorandum issued by Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Office Area Manager Jason Phillips stated “retaining a fisheries group function is no longer practical.” In an interview with the Herald and News, Phillips said Reclamation took on additional biologists in the last decade as the agency was tasked with conducting additional research in the Klamath Basin. By 2007, he said some of the work became unnecessary and the office has been overstaffed with biologists.

“I don’t perceive a need for a fisheries branch with seven scientists,” Phillips said, explaining the decision is strictly based on budget and a need to operate efficiently. Phillips added he is working with the union and it may take up to a year to curb the number of biologist jobs, with some reductions achieved through attrition. At most, Reclamation offices have one, possibly two, biologists on staff, he said.

In response, Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said, “It’s clear the biologists would like some resolution and they feel strongly their work is important and should continue.”

Yet in nearly 16 years working for the government, Phillips said he couldn’t remember any decision he would have made differently.

PEER complaint

The PEER complaint released Jan. 7 calls actions by Reclamation management “coercive manipulation,” “censorship” and “impeding the free flow of scientific information.”

The complaint focuses on two scientific issues:

(1) the discovery of greater-than-anticipated numbers of endangered sucker in Lake Ewauna, and

(2) a life-cycle model of threatened coho salmon, with preliminary results indicating that tributary flows are more important than the main Klamath River, whose flows are managed by Reclamation.

“It is our contention, based upon our examination of the record, that Reclamation’s KBAO Area Manager Jason Phillips and other Reclamation officials who sanctioned or approved his actions are guilty of scientific and scholarly misconduct,” the PEER complaint states.

Yet Pete Lucero, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Region, said the complaint by PEER has no standing and linking the Reclamation budget demands to scientific integrity is completely false.

“This is about how best to utilize resources related to workload,” Lucero said.

PEER’s complaint has been assigned to Levi Brekke, Acting Science Advisor and Scientific Integrity Officer for the Bureau of Reclamation.

dschwartz@heraldandnews  .



Scientific and scholarly misconduct questioned at office


H&N Staff Reporter

Science is science. Or is it? Does science depend on who does the research, how the results are interpreted and whether those results are disseminated to the larger community?

The current standoff between the Bureau of Reclamation and seven fisheries biologists highlights these questions. In order to try to hold onto their jobs, the biologists have filed a complaint of scientific and scholarly misconduct through a watchdog group called Public Employees who Protect our Environment.

In addition, their union has reportedly filed a grievance, an information request and an unfair labor practice charge against Reclamation management.

The first related research area regards higher-than-expected numbers of endangered sucker in Lake Ewauna. Another is a life-cycle model of coho salmon that could complicate suppositions about benefits stemming from water released through the Klamath Project dams.


Both reports underwent peerreview, though neither has been published due to internal mechanisms, which all federal agencies have, related to the quality and release of data.

According to some, this is not a rare occurrence for Reclamation. A source familiar with the Basin’s scientific community said a lack of approved publications has become Reclamation’s hallmark.

“If we’re going to undertake science, we need to acknowledge the results,” said Rep. Gail Whitsett, R-Dist. 56, a former geologist. “We don’t need to politicize science and we can’t make the science fit what we want. I applaud the scientists for doing their work and standing up for themselves.”

Her husband, Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Dist. 28, said, “Science is never a consensus and it’s never settled. Good science has to be reproducible and will welcome any questions. The model said no fish and the empirical study said there were fish — so which way do you want to go?”

The Whitsetts have previously come out opposing regulations whose modeling, they say, differs from reality. One example is the contested Total Daily Maximum Load, or TMDL, stipulating specific water quality in Oregon rivers that Gail Whitsett said is costly and ultimately unattainable.

Denying allegations

Yet Pete Lucero, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Region, denies allegations of compromised science. He said these are issues of agency-wide organization and the best use of resources.

Reclamation Area Manager Jason Phillips said none of this should be seen as a criticism of the biologists or of past scientific efforts.

He maintains there is no need for a fisheries-specific branch, though Reclamation must maintain its scientific contracts and help improve coordination amongst scientific bodies in the Basin.



Management, practices questioned at area office

Though only organized since February of 2012, the National Federation of Federal Employees chapter representing local Bureau of Reclamation fish biologists has been busy.

There have been at least four grievances filed against Reclamation management and six prenotifications of unfair practices in less than a 12-month period, according to union president Todd Pederson, a natural resources specialist for Reclamation in Sacramento.

After a Nov. 8 memo issued by Jason Phillips, Reclamation’s Klamath Basin area manager, stating “retaining a fisheries group function is no longer practical,” the union has responded in a number of ways.

A grievance has been filed that is one step away from reaching formal arbitration.

An unfair labor practice charge has also been filed. Pederson said management either didn’t do the background work to substantiate claims from the Nov. 8 memo or they’re not releasing it. Specifically, the union president referenced Phillips’ claim that Klamath Basin stakeholders including tribes, agencies and interest groups view scientific studies done by other entities as credible, whereas work done by the local Reclamation office is not.

Finally, the union has filed an information request on the cost analysis of water quality work that had been contracted out to another scientific entity. The assertion is that completing the work in-house could be more cost-effective, so any alternative conclusion should be substantiated.

Before any formal investigation could begin, both sides had to provide details to the Federal Labor Relations Authority by Feb. 13.

Pederson said the union wants all seven biologists retained in the local office, although they want to be supervised from Reclamation’s Bay-Delta office. That way, they would also be managed by Susan Fry, who formerly held Jason Phillips’ position.

As the Bay-Delta office focuses more on fisheries work, Pederson said, it would make sense to be operated from there.

— Devan Schwartz


What happens next?

Jeff Ruch of PEER said the Bureau of Reclamation’s new regional director, David Murillo, has options — he could pursue the proposed action of reducing or closing the local fisheries division or he could leave it intact.

Klamath Basin Area Manager Jason Phillips indicated management will work with union representatives from the National Federation of Federal Employees over the next few months to a year to resolve the problems.

“Our mission is to deliver water to users while not endangering species,” Phillips said. He added this issue centers on Reclamation’s budgets and human resources decisions and he denies any connections to scientific suppression, or political influence.

Yet as the process unfolds, questions will linger in the Klamath Basin about the truth of each side’s claims.

Craig Tucker, Klamath coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said the way science works is people with different data need to hash it out. Tucker, too, thinks this is just a case of a management decision about how to run the Klamath Basin Area Office efficiently, in an era of shrinking budgets.

Larry Dunsmoor, senior aquatics biologist for the Klamath Tribes, said unions are a good thing if their cause is just, “but if the cause isn’t, then how do you feel? The system can be good or bad depending on the specificity of the situation.”

— Devan Schwartz






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