Ocean Beach DOG
What Do Your Dog and the Western Snowy Plover Have in Common?
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If the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is to be believed, they both belong on the Endangered Species List (ESL). We seem to have reached a crossroads in our society where politics and ideology trump scientific fact. Where extreme environmental agendas countermand land usage rights of the citizenry.

Look at the latest decision by the USFWS (click here to view the actual Federal Register posting) to deny a petition to take the Western Snowy Plover (WSP) off of the ESL. This decision is evidence that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has become seriously perverted from its original intent to protect species from worldwide extinction. Traditional tenets of science (the scientific method) have been ignored to justify this conclusion.

The scientific method is the process by which scientists, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world. In summary, the scientific method attempts to minimize the influence of bias or prejudice in the experimenter when testing an hypothesis or a theory.

The scientific method has four steps

1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.

Based upon monitoring of the movements of the plovers on the west coast (the WSP) and inland plovers, and the perceived decline of the WSP, the USFWS became concerned as they believed the WSP was a species distinct from the large inland population of plovers, and as such required protection from extinction. The Western Snowy Plover was first listed as a threatened species in 1993. Quoting the USFWS(all of their quotes will be italicized and in black):

"The 1993 listing rule stated that the Pacific Coast WSP is ``genetically isolated'' from the interior breeding populations (58 FR 12864). We based this conclusion on banding and monitoring data, not genetic data. At the time of listing, we assumed the reproductive separation indicated by the banding data, over time, could lead to genetic differentiation. Genetic data for the western snowy plover was not available in 1993."

2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena.

The hypothesis as stated above, was: Because there was little or no breeding observed between the WSP and the inland population of plovers, the WSP was genetically different than the large population of plovers living inland, and being in decline, the WSP required protection.

3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.

Should genetic testing be performed, the USFWS expected to see genetic differences between the coastal WSP population and the large inland population, which would confirm the need for protection of the WSP. The USFWS had no genetic data to confirm their hypothesis. However, apparently the ESA allows the USFWS to move to protect a species first, and investigate to be sure, later. There are timelines specified by law as to how long the USFWS has to test their hypothesis, and it does seem they were abused. In the meantime, measures were taken to protect the WSP, which included most notably for the public, restriction of beach access.

4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

In fact, a study was done many years later funded and approved by the USFWS and the USGS to test the USFWS hypothesis.

"...a master's thesis (Gorman 2000) that did not find evidence of genetic differentiation between the Pacific Coast WSP and western interior snowy plover populations using mitochondrial DNA (mt DNA)."

The Scientific method concludes: If the experiments bear out the hypothesis it may come to be regarded as a theory or law of nature…. If the experiments do not bear out the hypothesis, it must be rejected or modified.

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So, now that the USFWS hypothesis had been disproved, and the WSP could not be distinguished genetically from the very large inland plover population did the USFWS move to delist the WSP? NO. In fact, they continued to proceed to implement management policies to protect the WSP, further restricting the public’s access to beaches on the Western coast. Several entities (City of Morro Bay and Surf Ocean Beach Commission) who were suffering due to those management policies decided to sue the USFWS to force them to re-evaluate this situation.

The announcement to retain the WSP’s listing as a threatened species on April 21, 2006 is the USFWS response to this lawsuit. It appears that the USFWS, not wishing to delist the plover, refused to reject their hypothesis or modify their hypothesis that the WSP was genetically different, even though it had been reliably disproved. It is not revealed in the announcement how this came about, but it appears that the USFWS authorized another study in an attempt to refute this first study that disproved their hypothesis. USFWS stalled the court proceedings, possibly because they were counting upon the results of this second study using another method of DNA testing to substantiate their original hypothesis that the WSP was genetically different from the large inland population. The second study confirmed the results of the first.

"…a more recent study by Funk et al. (2006) includes analysis of microsatellite DNA markers. Funk et al. (2006) found no statistically significant genetic differentiation between Pacific Coast WSP and western interior snowy plover populations using mtDNA and microsatellite DNA markers."

Did the USFWS at this point acknowledge their hypothesis was incorrect and move to delist the WSP because it is the same creature as the large population of plovers who live inland and whose number require no protection from extinction? NO.

Perhaps most telling is the general opinion of Daniel Funk who provided the second DNA study, and whom the USFWS certainly chose to rely upon: "… it is important to use data from a wide range of criteria—interbreeding, nuclear DNA, behavior, morphology, ecology, etc.—not just mtDNA, when delimiting species boundaries."

This is indeed a disturbing concept, because this indicates Mr. Funk and the USFWS are quite comfortable setting public policy that restricts public access to thousands of miles of beach property based upon their personal definition of a species which may ignore verifiable hard DNA data in deference to intangible and/or incomplete data which is subject to bias. The USFWS chose to rely upon outdated, observational data regarding the lack of interbreeding of the WSP and the larger inland population to conclude that these two populations are separate and distinct and that the WSP should therefore, still be protected.

"In this finding, we rely primarily on the banding and resighting efforts conducted during the period of 1984 through 1993, as this is the period when banding efforts were underway at several areas on the Pacific coast and in the western interior, and nest monitoring studies and breeding season surveys were underway at many locations when banded birds could be detected. Interior populations have not been banded since 1993 (L. Stenzel, in litt. 2005)."

Furthermore, the USFWS ignored yet another fundamental of the Scientific Method in the interpretation of this outdated data.  The USFWS recruited four heavily biased researchers in favor of protection of the snowy plover to examine the banding data.  All four are associated closely with the Audubon Society or Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO).  The Audubon Society formally opposed the delisting of the plover and officials at PRBO are in large part responsible for the initial listing of the plover as threatened.  Not surprisingly, their conclusions were as follows:

"...we conclude that the Pacific Coast WSP is markedly separate from other populations of the subspecies due to behavioral differences and that it, therefore, meets the requirements of our DPS policy for discreteness. Banding studies and resighting efforts demonstrate that during breeding, the Pacific Coast WSP segregates geographically from other members of the subspecies, even those that also winter on the Pacific coast. Although not absolute, this segregation is marked and significant."... This behavioral difference tends to set Pacific Coast WSP individuals apart from the interior birds with which they may mix during the winter."

The USFWS has chosen to deviate from established scientific method, ignore incontrovertible, tangible, and specific data such as the two DNA studies, and rely instead upon clearly biased assumptions regarding the behavior and breeding of the WSP to justify their decision. The decision requires the USFWS to assume that there is little or no interbreeding between the populations. The decision requires the USFWS to assume that should the coastal plover population be lost, the inland population could not recolonize the coast. Neither of these assumptions has the benefit of reliable, incontrovertible data.

Therefore, since 20% of the plovers have decided they prefer to "hang out" on west coast beaches rather than with the rest of the genetically identical plovers inland, the general public will not be allowed that privilege.

For those unfamilar with the genetic lexicon, consider how it is the Courts and the medical community determine the father of a child when it is in doubt.  DNA tests are the standard test utilized, to the exclusion of all others. It would be a gross injustice for the Court to disregard DNA evidence that confirms the child's father is Mr. A, and instead conclude the child's father is Mr. B simply because the child behaved more like Mr. B.

Decisions made based upon intangibles, and without deference to hard, reliable scientific data are subject to abuse of discretion; and are the antithesis of the established "scientific method" which goes to great lengths to minimize the influence of bias or prejudice in the experimenter when testing an hypothesis or a theory. The Endangered Species Act requires decisions to be based upon science’s best evidence, not ideology or politics as it is today.

So, you see, it no longer matters that your dog may be the genetic equal (i.e., DNA equivalent) of other dogs on the planet from an ESA perspective. The fact that your dog may behave differently than other dogs (and whose dog doesn’t?) ensures their status as a unique, endangered species on the ESL. They will occupy a protected position on that list, one that will surely compromise the rights of all of those who dare tread the paths that you and your dog may decide to roam. Let’s petition to put all of our dogs on the ESL—that seems to be the only way we will be able to assert our rights to utilize public property for recreation even though we as taxpayers pay for the upkeep of all of it.