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Ecology and salmon related articles

Biology Breached

from the Editors of Orion - Spring 1999

The special section of this issue of Orion explores the need to put some soul back into the way we understand the world. Its underlying assertion may appear to be that science and its enumerations influence us too much, and it is true that we often fall too fast for out-of-context information, data, projections, and facts.

But it is equally true that we don't listen to science and scientists when we should. A recent example: Last year the Idaho Fish and Game Commission was required to advise the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as to which of three management options it thought would best preserve the Snake and Salmon rivers' stocks of salmon, which are federally listed and threatened and endangered. The Commission's recommendation, as informed by the biologists of the Idaho Fish and Game Department, was the most drastic of the available options: to breach the dams on the lower Snake and Salmon rivers, and to allow the rivers to return to more natural flow conditions. (This summer NMFS and the Army Corps will release their plan for preserving the salmon; it is not known yet which course they will take.)

This was not what Idaho's powers-that-be wanted to hear, for the dams supply cheap electricity to, among others, the state's profitable mining industry. Since the recommendation, politicians--including those on the Fish and Game Commission--have skillfully waged a campaign to, in the words of a Fish and Game Department employee, "shut those biologists up." The Department reportedly has been pressured to revise its recommendation. Biologists who have spent their careers studying the state's fish have been subject to threats and harassment. An amendment to the state's personnel policy has moved the power to hire and fire state employees, including biologists, within the grasp of politicians. Recently there was an attempt to shift the authority over endangered species protection entirely out of the Fish and Game Deparment and into a new "office of Threatened and Endangered Species" overseen by the state's governor. In short, as a result of trying to do their job--protecting Idaho's wildlife--these biologists face a kind of professional castration.

This is bad news for Idaho salmon and Idaho biologists, of course. But what's happening in Idaho is neither a new story, nor an unusual one. For decades biologists have warned the public of dangers such as pesticides, declining forest health, climate change, dwindling wildlife populations, waning water supplies--only to have their voices ignored or silenced, often by industry, and at all levels of government. And for decades, courageous scientists like Rachel Carson, and less famous ones like those profiled in Todd Wilkison's recent Science Under Siege, have put their careers on the line by standing up for what they believe.

It's important that we braoden our methods of understanding the world beyound statistics. But it's equally important that we do not allow solid scientific information to be suppressed, nor allow brave and visionary scientist to go unheard. Scenarios like the one in Idaho, in which sound science is bulldozed by political will, endanger everyone and everything. And until we have the courage to live up to the wisdom revealed by science, not only science, but our humanity too, will be compromised.

from the Editors of Orion Afield
Biology Breached
Orion - Spring 1999

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