Biologist's allegations prompt investigations
State approach to endangered species at issue
By BILL DAWSON - Houston Chronicle Environment Writer - 31 August 1995

A turmoil-racked period of disagreements among some of the state government's endangered species scientists has led to inquiries by both federal and state officials into one Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist's complaints.

Federal officials said this week they are looking into the biologist's formal allegation that the Texas agency has "covered up" a number of potentially harmful impacts on rare species, including some of the department's own activities at a state fish hatchery and wildlife management area.

The Parks and Wildlife Department already had launched its own multipronged internal investigation into the biologist's allegations, top officials of the state agency confirmed.

"There will be a thorough review," Andrew Sansom, the state agency's executive director, said Wednesday of the internal inquiries. "If there's an indication of some wrongdoing, you can be assured I will deal with it."

State biologist Dean Keddy-Hector's complaint last week to Mollie Beattie, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, alleges that unnamed officials of the Texas wildlife agency have suppressed and distorted staff experts' views on threats to endangered and threatened species, among other actions that may have jeopardized them.

The complaint partly involves disagreements among Parks and Wildlife Department scientists about what constitutes significant negative impacts to rare animals and plants protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, which Beattie's agency administers.

Larry McKinney, director of the Texas agency's Resource Protection Division, said one of three internal investigations is looking at whether the disagreements were simply the kind common among scientists or whether anyone unduly "stretched" staff experts' recommendations.

So far, that science-based inquiry into complaints by Keddy-Hector and other biologists has turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, he said. In addition, McKinney said, there is an ongoing "internal affairs" inquiry that he could not comment on and a "management review."

He admitted that endangered species efforts under his supervision in the department recently have been snared in "turmoil."

This disquiet, McKinney said, at least partly reflects clashes between biologists who take a more "management"-oriented approach to conserving rare species and those with a more "preservationist"bent.

Keddy-Hector told the Chronicle he believes the departmental actions outlined in his complaint to Beattie exemplify "extensive intrusion of the property-rights movement into governmental activities which are obligated to serve the public at large."

Other staff scientists privately have voiced similar concerns.

"The situation is tumultuous now," said one scientist who requested anonymity. "There's a lot of pressure from legislators and the property-rights stuff, and I think some of our leaders are responding to that in ways they don't fully understand."

Sansom said recent disagreements among his agency's endangered species specialists are typical of other occasions when government policies change.

"In public life, when policy shifts, people get engaged in debate and this is what this is all about," he said.

The formal allegations Keddy-Hector filed with federal officials come in the wake of other controversies involving the Texas agency's endangered species efforts.

Early this year, environmentalists were angry when they were not included in talks between the Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas property-rights advocates about possible revisions to the Endangered Species Act.

This month, Parks and Wildlife officials disclosed a plan to revamp the state Natural Heritage Program, which they said was partly in response to property-rights concerns, to direct its focus away from rare species and from private lands.

Keddy-Hector said he was told Tuesday by McKinney that his position in the Heritage Program was being eliminated but he could stay on another 12 months as a contract employee. McKinney said Wednesday another permanent position may be found for him after that.

Property-rights advocates in Texas increasingly have criticized the Endangered Species Act -- and efforts such as the Heritage Program, which gathers data on rare species -- because regulations under the law restrict land uses.

Keddy-Hector said in his letter to Beattie that he believed his agency was violating the Endangered Species Act in the matters he reported, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said this week they disagree.

The federal agency believe his letter instead involves alleged "manipulation of data" -- something not covered by the act -- and will examine the issues accordingly, officials in the service's Washington and regional offices said.

The two main complaints detailed in Keddy-Hector's letter involve the Parks and Wildlife Department's review of potential harm to endangered species from brush clearing at a state wildlife area and discharges at a state fish hatchery.

In the case of the fish hatchery at San Marcos, state documents obtained by the Chronicle indicate some staff scientists said the discharges' effects on a rare fish and rare plant species were "undetermined." Supervisory personnel favored a conclusion that there was no significant impact.

The issue raised regarding the Buck Wildlife Management area in Central Texas involves questions of whether a federal biologist was quoted correctly in a state memorandum on the potential impact of clearing on the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo, two endangered songbirds.

In both cases, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately cleared federally supported activities at the two state facilities to proceed.

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