Selling science to the agencies: an ecologist's story

  • David Dobkin

    Kathie Durbin photo

Note: this article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

David Dobkin's epiphany occurred in New Jersey in 1989, as he drove down a road in the Pine Barrens. At each turn he encountered another trash heap of wrecked automobiles and abandoned refrigerators. The Rutgers University zoology professor knew he was in the wrong place.

"Here I was in the largest contiguous forest between Massachusetts and northern Virginia, and humanity's impact was everywhere," he recalls. "It seemed it was too late for the East. Where I thought I could make a difference was in the Intermountain West."

So Dobkin spent his 1990-91 sabbatical year in Bend, Ore., developing research projects. The following year he quit his job and moved his family to Bend. There he established the High Desert Ecological Research Institute to bring credible scientific research to bear on land-management decisions. Its mandate: to "confront the assumptions by which many of those decisions were being made."

Dobkin saw a disconnection between credible research and management on the ground. "There are a lot of good biologists in the agencies, but their work was getting ignored," he says.

Since moving West, Dobkin has found the road rocky and mostly uphill. Time after time, he says, federal agencies have failed to follow through on his initial research - especially when that research indicts livestock grazing.

His four-year project monitoring streamside vegetation and bird populations at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge ended in acrimony. His report on the loss of sage grouse habitat, the product of a seminal conference which he organized, was not widely circulated by federal agencies. And the Bureau of Land Management cut short a bird survey he helped set up on the rangelands of eastern Oregon after just one year of data-gathering.

Dobkin holds strong opinions about the past, present and future of the Great Basin. Though he denies that he is hostile to cattle grazing, he firmly believes that "removal of livestock is highly compatible with dramatic ecological restoration."

There's no question Dobkin possesses the credentials to push federal land management into the 21st century. An international authority on the ecology of birds and ecosystems of the Western United States, he has a résumé that includes a Ph.D. in zoology and ecology from the University of California at Berkeley, work as senior ecologist at Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology in the 1980s and service on several national and regional scientific advisory teams. He has published four books on the conservation of birds and is working on a fifth.

But his sharp criticism of federal agencies, and his occasionally abrasive style, have rubbed some traditional land managers the wrong way. Even many of those who support his research often disagree with his assertion that land-management agencies simply don't want to see evidence of the devastating toll overgrazing has exacted in the West.

"Our managers would be appalled if they heard that was the claim," said Eric Campbell, wildlife program manager for the Oregon BLM. Campbell blames budget cuts, misplaced priorities and bureaucratic inertia for the frustrating dead-ends Dobkin has encountered.

Wherever the truth lies, it also points to a discouraging lack of vision on the part of the nation's land-management agencies. In Bend, Dobkin set about developing ideas for ecological research that might interest federal agencies. He chose the Hart Mountain Refuge as an ideal place to establish a research project.

"It was a happy coincidence," he says, that then-refuge manager Barry Reiswig had recently barred cows from the overgrazed refuge. Dobkin realized that Hart Mountain offered a unique opportunity to study a high desert ecosystem coming back.

An important part of his research involved measuring conditions in fenced exclosures from which cows had been absent for decades, then contrasting those with plots where cows had recently grazed. Because these fenced exclosures provided strong visual evidence of the difference between grazed and ungrazed stream banks, they had been controversial with local ranchers and some range scientists for years.

When he returned to Hart Mountain in 1994 for his fourth year of data-gathering, Dobkin discovered that the fences around the exclosures were gone. Astounded, he contacted refuge headquarters in Lakeview and demanded to know why. He has yet to get an answer that satisfies him.

Resident refuge manager Dan Alonso and his boss, Mike Nunn, deny that the fences came down under pressure from ranchers. They say the removal was part of a refuge-wide project to get rid of barriers to wildlife movement. Now that the fence around one plot near refuge headquarters has come down, "antelope do come closer to headquarters," Nunn says. "Deer and antelope can use these areas now. Somehow that seems appropriate on an antelope refuge."

Dobkin had hoped to continue monitoring stream habitat for several more years, but the Fish and Wildlife Service ended funding for the project after 1994. Again, Dobkin suspects political motives. "The difficulty is the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have the vision to want to continue with the work," he contends. "They may not have the political will to follow where the research leads."

Nunn talks about "bad blood" between Dobkin and the agency. Tara Zimmerman, regional non-game bird coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, won't say whether she would contract with Dobkin again. But she concedes that the hard feelings started with the removal of the exclosure fences. "On everybody's side it could have been handled better," she says.

Another disappointment came after Dobkin organized a symposium to discuss what land managers could do to stem the loss of sage grouse habitat. The November 1993 conference attracted state and federal game biologists from across the West. The game bird, closely tied to the shrub-steppe grasslands of the Great Basin, once inhabited more than 90 million acres across 14 Western states and three Canadian provinces. But by 1950, soil erosion, depletion of scarce water sources, and the invasion of the range by exotic plants - all associated with livestock grazing - had reduced its habitat by more than half.

State game agencies had been studying the bird for a half-century, but their data were inconsistent. Dobkin was convinced that only broad landscape-level changes in land management could reverse the habitat decline.

"I was given carte blanche to develop proposals for research, management and monitoring," Dobkin said. The BLM promised to publish a booklet summarizing the symposium discussion and to distribute it widely to BLM and Forest Service managers throughout the West.

But the text Dobkin prepared for the booklet sat on a disk, printer-ready, for a year. Then the 104th Congress took over and the project was quietly shelved. In the end, the BLM printed 50 copies but prepared no distribution list.

The report cites "drastically altered fire frequencies, livestock overgrazing, invasion by exotic plants, and agricultural development" for the decline in sage grouse habitat.

Was it backlash?

"Everyone is sensitive to attacking the livestock industry," says Alan Sands, at the time the BLM's national specialist on the upland game bird. "A lot of public agencies suffer backlash when they raise these issues," though he says that's hard to prove. But it's more likely, Sands says, that the report didn't get widely distributed because of BLM budget cuts.

Even so, he considers Dobkin's project a success. "It stimulated a lot of people to look at sage grouse a lot harder. Idaho Fish and Game has developed a coordinated program with the Forest Service, BLM and the Idaho Cattlemen's Association. Colorado is also doing good work with sage grouse."

Hoping to widen the scope of his Hart Mountain work, Dobkin also launched a study of neotropical migrant birds on grazed BLM land. With biologists from the Oregon BLM office, he visited three eastern Oregon districts, established survey plots and gathered data. The project was to be expanded to two more districts the following year. Then funding mysteriously dried up. Dobkin was told that decision-making in the agency had devolved from the regional office to the districts, and that district managers had little interest in tracking songbirds.

The BLM's Eric Campbell admits follow-up has been "real hit or miss because of the workload on our management." He says he still considers Dobkin's research a high priority. But it keeps coming up against the political reality of lawsuits and appeals over fish and wildlife protection, and those crises always rise to the top of the list.

Dobkin hasn't given up his dream, and is seeking foundation funding to replace lost federal support. He says he now understands why most academic biologists shy away from federal agencies in their research.

"But to me that was the challenge, and still is the challenge," he adds. "If we can't undertake and apply good science on public lands and use that as the driving force for management and long-term sustainability here in the U.S., then how can we presume to be the world leader in dictating the use of good conservation to other countries?"

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