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Sage-grouse data challenge: A looming iceberg tip for natural resource management?:

Key information concerning the status of sage-grouse and its habitat in 11 western states has been challenged under the Information Quality Act (IQA), reports the Wildlife Management Institute.

The IQA challenge by Partnership for the West (PFW), a group of energy companies and others, asks the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to correct or retract information presented in the "Conservation Assessment of Greater Sage-grouse and Sagebrush Habitats," which was released by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) in June. The 600-page conservation assessment is the product of an intensive and unprecedented year-along effort by the 11 state fish and wildlife agencies responsible for management of sage-grouse populations. The effort represents the work of well over 100 individuals from the state, federal and private sectors and the peer review of nine anonymous scientist referees selected by the Ecological Society of America.

The IQA requires federal agencies to "issue guidelines ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by the agency" to the public. Department of the Interior and Service guidelines state that they will use the best available science, use data collected by standard and accepted methods or best available methods, and ensure that presentation of information is as comprehensive as possible, informative and understandable.

The PFW argues that the Service must correct or retract information in the WAFWA Conservation Assessment because it violates the IQA and Service guidelines. They maintain that the document overstates threats to sage-grouse, underestimates abundance of the species and understates current conservation efforts. The PFW challenge also is directed at third-party petitions to list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which were received by the Service earlier this year, and the Service's finding that these petitions and additional information available in their files presented substantial information indicating that listing the greater sage-grouse may be warranted. The Service must decide by December 29, 2004, whether to propose listing the greater sage-grouse under the ESA.

Conservationists note that the PFW challenge presents an interesting interweaving of arguments about the quality of information in the WAFWA conservation assessment with arguments in opposition to listing the greater sage-grouse under the ESA. They note that the PFW challenge offers the Service the opportunity to correct the information it disseminated by deciding not to list the species.

Conservationists are becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of the growing number of IQA challenges on management of natural resources by federal agencies. Many are concerned that the IQA provides yet another avenue to challenge and delay agency decisions. They cite PFW claims that the WAFWA conservation assessment is subject to the IQA because the document was disseminated electronically on Department of the Interior and the Service web pages. Although the Service did not prepare the assessment, the agency's guidelines apply to information from outside parties if it is disseminated in a way that "reasonably suggests that the agency endorses or agrees with the information." It is not known whether the Service has decided that web page posting constituted such endorsement or agreement. If it finds the PFW challenge is appropriate for consideration, the Service will review the request and send the results of this decision to the requester with an explanation for the decision. Service guidelines allow a challenger 15 days to appeal a decision to the Service. The guidelines, however, do not provide any right of judicial review. (rpd)

2004 Wildlife Management Institute, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted for broadcast, publication, and retransmission to e-mail lists, the World Wide Web or other copying or storage medium, online or not, if (1) the text is forwarded in its entirety, including this paragraph, and (2) no fee is charged.