Dr. Rob Dillon, Coordinator

Friday, December 23, 2005

Idaho Springsnail Panel Report

To the FWGNA group:

As most of you are aware, 2005 has seen a great deal of attention focused on the conservation status of the west American hydrobiid, Pyrgulopsis idahoensis. Although the “Idaho Springsnail” was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1992, a recent taxonomic reappraisal by Hershler & Liu (Veliger 47: 66-81) prompted the state of Idaho and Idaho Power to petition the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), for delisting earlier this year. Several non-governmental conservation groups have lodged a competing petition, and the battle lines are now drawn. See my essay of April, 2005 on the “Idaho Springsnail Showdown” for a brief review.

On October 18 & 19 the FWS convened a “Springsnails Science Panel” at the Statehouse Inn in downtown Boise, Idaho for the purpose of making recommendations regarding the conservation status of the Idaho Springsnail. The panelists were Joe Bidwell (Oklahoma State University), Greg Clark (USGS), Stephanie Clark (University of Alabama), Billie Kerens (Montana State University), Leslie Riley (Washington State University), and myself. It occurs to me that the members of the FWGNA group might be interested in a brief report of these proceedings, with a complimentary side-salad on the relationship between science and public policy.

The basis for our two day discussion was an 82-page document from the FWS entitled “Best Available Biological Information for Four Petitioned Springsnails in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.” We were also given 34 pages of peer review comments on this document, offered (doubtless) by many of you. My main impression was simple amazement that such a tremendous amount of information might be available on any single species of North American freshwater snail. My main recommendation (upon initial review) was simply that the title of the document be changed to better reflect its content, “Absolutely Every Scrap of Data that has Ever Been Collected, and Every Word that has Ever Been Written, about the Idaho Springsnail, Regardless of Quality.”

The most contentious issue was taken off the table before the October meeting even began. On page 9 of the “Best Available” document, the FWS reported its determination that the Idaho Springsnail is not endemic to the Snake River, as previously believed, but also inhabits Washington, Oregon, and Wyoming, as concluded by Hershler & Liu.

The most surprising tidbits of information in the report were, to me, the data on the population size of P. idahoensis in the Snake River. Studies by the Idaho Power Company have found an average snail density of 130 snails / m2 over 80 linear miles. This average includes the 32% of the sites where no snails were present, presumably uninhabitable. I think that the snake river Pyrgulopsis may constitute the largest single population of freshwater snails ever documented. Can anybody on this list think of a larger one?

The panel meeting itself was moderated by Mr. Phil Carroll, a professional facilitator, who favors the “modified Delphi method” of problem-solving. This approach carries a group of experts through a series of discussions and polls to a final vote where each participant invests some standard number of figurative chits to indicate his certainty regarding possible answers to the central question.

I found the entire two-day process intellectually nauseating. On the one hand, most of the questions we entertained were not scientific, nor framed in a way that could be answered by science. And in fact it was clear to me that the entire process was designed and controlled by well-meaning and hard-working people who nevertheless have no clue even what science is.

For example, we panelists spent most of the first afternoon discussing “How intrinsic factors (or extrinsic factors) contribute to population resiliency and vulnerability.” The units in which “population resiliency and vulnerability” might be measured never seemed to be at issue.

Some of our colleagues wrung their hands, saying “If we only had more information, these decisions would be so much easier!” Nonsense. We have more information on the Idaho Springsnail than any other freshwater gastropod in the world, except the medically-important species of the tropics. The questions we were asked in Boise were simply not answerable.

But on the other hand, I understand why the FWS would very much like to have information on “population resiliency and vulnerability” if such statistics could be calculated, to make the decisions it must make on endangered species. And I honestly can’t think of a better method to obtain such information other than asking for gut-level guesses from as large a sample of knowledgeable people as possible. So when I placed myself in the intellectual mindframe of a natural resources manager, or some similar public servant (as opposed to a scientist), the process ongoing at the Statehouse Inn was not uncomfortable.

For me the two-day meeting was like an intellectual roller coaster, periods of relative calm being followed by vertiginous drops, during which I desperately tried not to vomit.

But unlike the typical roller coaster, alas, the ride got worse as it proceeded. In the early afternoon of the second day we took a series of votes designed “to express [our] belief about what is the most likely timeframe for extinction and what is [our] confidence level in this specified timeframe.” We were each given a ballot with boxes labeled 1- 20 years, 21 – 40 years, 41- 60 years, 61- 80 years, and 100+ years, and asked to cast 100 chits into these boxes according to our judgments of when P. idahoensis might go extinct. These ballots were collected, tallied, discussed, and second and third rounds of voting ensued.

I was genuinely surprised by the time frames nominated, which seemed designed to bias our judgments quite low. I would have voted for “a million, billion, zillion years” or perhaps, “a ton of years” had those options been available.

Much to my dismay, this particular series of votes did not constitute the end of the matter. After tabulating the last round of ballots, our facilitator calmly informed us that the specific language of the endangered species act refers not to the simple extinction of a species, but to extinction “in a significant portion of its range.” Further, the date of that extinction has no absolute boundary, but is specified only as “the foreseeable future.” So we six scientists had been packed into a tiny windowless room in downtown Boise, Idaho, for two days and the entire discussion finally boiled down to “what fraction of a range is significant, and what length of time into the future is foreseeable.” At least we could agree on units of measurement.

And it could have been worse. Also present in the room, occasionally asking questions and making comments, was a second “Manager’s Panel” comprised of six middle-level FWS field supervisors, division heads, and so forth. We six scientists were allowed to leave on the afternoon of the 19th, but those poor souls were condemned to two additional days of discussion and voting.

I have no idea what recommendation emanated of the Boise meeting. I will observe that among all six of us on the science panel, nobody placed his modal expected extinction date to the left of the foreseeable future. From Boise, however, the decision-making process proceeds through the regional and national Fish & Wildlife Service offices, ultimately to appear in the Federal Register as a ruling by the Secretary of the Interior. Until then, the process is cloaked in secrecy.

For myself, I emerged from the meeting with a renewed conviction that science and politics don’t mix. Steven Jay Gould coined the term, “nonoverlapping majesteria” to describe the relationship between science and religion, but I think the description is just as apt for science and public policy. We have different languages, values, and worldviews. It is quite clear to me that science was horribly corrupted in at The Statehouse Inn in downtown Boise October 18 & 19, invoked to answer questions it could not answer, and to justify decisions it could not justify.

I imagine that most of you reading this essay will disagree with me. In fact, I myself wish I were wrong. Your comments and replies are always welcome!

And we’ll keep in touch,

Historical Note:

The Idaho Springsnail was removed from the US Endangered Species List in August, 2007
[Press Release]