Dr. Rob Dillon, Coordinator

Monday, January 30, 2006

When Pigs Fly in Idaho

To the FWGNA group:

Thanks to all of you who responded to my post of 23Dec05, "Idaho Springsnail Panel Report." My message seems to have been circulated widely through the US Fish & Wildlife Service, at least in the Pacific Northwest, which I consider to be a compliment. Ultimately I received about 10 - 12 replies and comments, all positive and supportive.

Here's an especially thoughtful message I received from a fairly high-placed manager in the FWS, followed by my reply:


Dr. Dillon -- I was forwarded a few of your FWGNA postings concerning the Idaho springsnail science team process. I found the postings quite enjoyable.

I'm not sure what you are suggesting, however. Here we often experience some of the difficulties you imply in the relationship between science and policy, yet is there another option? Science holds a unique position in the implementation of natural resources policy, unlike religion or worldviews (though these obviously can play a role, though usually an unstated one), as it ostensibly supplies the terra firma from which we make our policy calls. Yet, science alone does not lead us. Policy is not strictly the morphing of science to fit regulations; rather it involves filtering science through political, ideological, even religious lens.I know this type of thinking doesn't often endear me to my Service or academic colleagues, yet it seems to me an obvious truth. The mix of science and policy is messy, but what other choice do we have?

Searching in Oregon

Dear Searching,

Good to hear from you. And you make an excellent point. In retrospect, my essay of 23Dec05 looks like a lot of undirected fussing. Shame on me for complaining so loudly about a problem, while at the same time offering no solution!

Well, I do have a "solution." I put quotes around that noun because I fear that my solution is not practical in the real world. In offering it I am assuming, for five zany paragraphs, that science might indeed "supply the terra firma from which we make our policy calls," as you so poetically put it.

I would suggest a biotic survey, right now, quit screwing around. I don't know about any other organisms, but the freshwater snails of the United States can be completely surveyed, catalogued, and ranked by their abundances in ten years, for just some thousands of dollars per state.

Are you familiar with the "Freshwater Gastropods of South Carolina" web site? I put that site up all by myself, with essentially zero financial support. I paid (out-of-pocket) about $500 to an adjunct faculty member here for the GIS work, and $500 to my daughter's college roommate for the web design. Table 1 (view from the Discussion page) shows the entire fauna completely ranked by abundance.

In 2005 I completed North Carolina, and at this point Virginia and Georgia are mostly surveyed. I've had a couple thousand dollars of support for this expansion, and I do have several colleagues helping me. We're in a holding pattern web development for the NC site right now - integrating it with SC is going to take some doing. I've paid the husband of one of the faculty members here $300 out-of-pocket to get started, and he's made some progress. He will need another $300 soon, and I'm tapped out from Christmas. Anyway, most of the North Carolina maps are currently viewable from the South Carolina site - check out the individual species pages.

So you can sense my frustration. For the amount of money it took to put on that Boise conference, fly us all to Idaho and set us to jabbering in a room for five days, my colleagues and I could have completely prioritized the entire freshwater gastropod fauna of the American west.

And I strongly suspect that P. robusta wouldn't even rank in the top 50% of the western species for conservation concern. There are dozens, maybe scores, of freshwater gastropod species much more deserving of protection than P. robusta. The current system is just a terrible waste of money, resources, time, energy, and effort - a crying shame.

In conclusion, I feel compelled to repeat a joke I heard during my year as a AAAS fellow on Capitol Hill. A Pig and a Butterfly wanted to get married, but there were obvious problems with the union. So they went to the Wise Old Owl for advice. The Owl heard their story, thought about it very deeply for many hours, and then said to the pig, with a grave and serious voice, "You must learn to fly." The pig replied, "But Mr. Owl, how can I fly? I have no wings!" To which the Owl replied, "Sorry, I only deal in policy options."



The proposal of a national biotic inventory I offered to "Searching in Oregon" earlier this month was obviously nothing new. But from a policy standpoint, I might as well have suggested that pigs fly. "Searching" wrote me a nice reply, confessing that the FWS has no money for general surveys, but rather must focus on species of conservation concern, like P. robusta, which of course is where we got on this merry-go-round.

Again I insist, science and public policy are incompatible - "nonoverlapping majesteria." And the only solution I can think of comes by analogy from that third majesterium, religion. Science and Religion must leave each other alone. And so must Science and Policy.

Heaven help us,