When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invited Wyatt Hoback and Douglas Leasure late last year to help it assess the threat farming posed to an endangered beetle they spent years studying, the two biologists jumped at the opportunity.
But the job did not turn out as they expected.
The two scientists say that federal wildlife officials pressured them to work on a rushed timeline at odds with what they saw as good science and to meld a meticulous map they made of the insect's habitat with another data set from a completely different region of the country. The pair ended their work with the agency worried the government may use their research to unduly downplay the threat big business poses to an endangered insect, called the American burying beetle.
“It felt like the Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to conclude that agriculture is not a risk to the beetle and were going to use the data in a way that made that conclusion, no matter what,” said Hoback, a professor of entomology at Oklahoma State University.
Separately by email, Leasure agreed. “I was absolutely shocked and disappointed at the poor science, lack of professional integrity, and impulsive decision-making” of the agency, wrote Leasure, who at the time was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Georgia.
The scientists' brief stint working with Fish and Wildlife — lasting a little bit more than a month — came as oil and natural gas producers press the Trump administration to roll back 29-year-old protections placed on the beetle in 1989 when it was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Fish and Wildlife is currently reassessing the beetle's status and is considering whether to carve out exemptions to rules protecting the beetle that add costs and delays to energy and agricultural businesses.
It also came as numerous academics who have worked with federal environmental agencies have complained that their viewpoints on climate change and other issues are being unfairly disregarded or dismissed since President Trump took office. The treatment of the beetle researchers may be another instance of what environmental activists see as the government putting science second to business.
“What Fish and Wildlife Service did was essentially squash science,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit to which Leasure turned after his work went awry with the agency. “They squashed viewpoints from scientists that they didn’t agree with or that didn’t line up with the preordained conclusion.”
Fish and Wildlife disagrees with the two scientists and the Center for Biological Diversity, saying that it "determined the record does not support” their allegations. The agency is still working on an assessment of the beetle in order to decide whether it should remain listed under the ESA, and it's unclear whether they will ultimately use the scientists' data.
In a statement, the agency said that the “decision-making processes” behind the unpublished assessment “are robust and are designed to use the best available science.”
“The credibility and reputation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are foundational to our ability to achieve our mission to manage our nation’s wildlife resources,” the agency added.
Lobbyists for industries working around the species argue that its range has ballooned 100-fold since getting federal protection and that the beetles are able to be raised in captivity for reintroduction into the wild.
"The [Fish and Wildlife] Service should be expending its time on imperiled species," Sam McDonald, the director of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told The Washington Post by email. "The American burying beetle isn’t one of them."
Even so, Hoback and Leasure think there is a better approach than the one they participated in.
The pair of beetle biologists volunteered their considerable expertise on the beetle for a small part of a larger Fish and Wildlife document called a species status assessment, which will be used to determine whether removing protections for the beetle are warranted. Leasure and Hoback were also told their part of the work would also be spun off and published in an academic journal.
A filing earlier this year hinted the agency is preparing to upgrade the beetle from endangered to merely threatened. The researchers stopped working with Fish and Wildlife well before writing any paper.
For decades, the shiny, orange-spotted insect has been a bugaboo for farmers in Nebraska and oilmen in Oklahoma who have to try to avoid killing it while developing land or potentially face penalties from the government, resulting in a long-standing tug of war over its status between industry and conservationists, who say the beetles need protection.
Once living nearly everywhere in the continental United States east of the Rockies, the beetle now lives in only a few corners of the country. The conversion of once-thriving habitat into farms is thought to be one of the potential drivers of the beetle’s decline.
Shortly before Christmas last year, Kevin Doherty, an ecologist with Fish and Wildlife, emailed Leasure and Hoback with a request: Would they like to help the government with an analysis of the American burying beetle in Nebraska?
In 2015, a coalition of land-use and oil industry groups, including the Independent Petroleum Association of America, petitioned Fish and Wildlife to delist the beetle as endangered. The government responded by beginning the species status assessment.
Leasure and Hoback had recently published a map of the beetle’s habitat in Nebraska. The two are among only a handful of researchers actively studying the insect, having spent years trapping the beetles in that state to sketch out where exactly they still exist.
As part of the assessment, the agency wanted to overlay the two scientists' map with with another map projecting which untilled areas may one day become farmland. The question: Where might farmers encroach on the beetle’s habitat in the future? Leasure and Hoback agreed to help — and sent the agency their beetle habitat model.
But after reading the study behind the other map that was to be combined with theirs, Leasure and Hoback saw problems.
The other academics mapped potential cropland in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming — not in the sandhills and silty soils of Nebraska, which have different ecologies.
The two maps “were never intended to be put together,” Hoback said.
To boot, Leasure and Hoback also told the agency their own map of the beetle’s habitat for all of Nebraska wasn’t even the best one to use for the task. Other maps focused more narrowly on specific sections of Nebraska would be more accurate, they said.
“The problem was the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored all the other published data,” Hoback said.
The result of combining these maps, according to Leasure and Hoback, would be an analysis showing the beetle population to be more spread out and far safer from agriculture than it actually is.
The two scientists and the agency may have been able to iron out those issues if Fish and Wildlife did not insist on completing the analysis as soon as possible, the scientists say. A "compressed timeline” would “guard from any perception of biases,” Doherty told the two scientists in a Jan. 16 email shared with The Post.
“At that point, we were given only a single day to resolve the issues” with how to use the maps together, Leasure told The Post. “Literally one day.”
“I have no idea why they were so rushed,” he added.
Leasure requested that his name be erased from the analysis. When he asked the agency about no longer using any of the data he sent over, Fish and Wildlife said once the information lands on government computers it is part of the administrative record and “cannot be deleted.”
Meanwhile, Hoback tried to work with the agency for about 10 more days before being told that his name would not appear on the analysis either, he said.
“I completely agreed with Doug,” Hoback said, “and yet I felt if we both pulled out then we had no ability to try to make it as good of an analysis as possible.”
Even after dropping out, Leasure discovered another issue. After receiving a newer draft of the report from another Fish and Wildlife employee, he alleges the agency “copied word-for-word” a paragraph from his and Hoback’s 2017 paper “even after removing us both from the report.”
Leasure decided to bring the concerns to higher-ups at the agency. In February, he wrote a letter to Noreen Walsh, the regional director for the agency's Mountain-Prairie Region, outlining “the unsound science and poor ethics that I witnessed.”
In response, Walsh wrote that the five sentences used from their paper were only used in a “pre-decisional draft of the analysis" and have already been removed.
This is not the first time federal research into the beetle has come under scrutiny. In 2013, a panel found that two supervisors committed “scientific misconduct” by dismissing the concerns of staff members when trying to shrink the agency’s habitat map in Oklahoma. At the time, the government was assessing the impact of the Keystone XL pipeline on the beetle.
Some Republicans in Congress have tried — unsuccessfully so far — to remove protections for the beetle through legislation. And in recent weeks, the Trump administration has proposed sweeping changes to the way it enforces the 45-year-old ESA, credited with bringing iconic animals such as the Yellowstone grizzly back from the brink of extinction.
But the burying beetle is no bear — or any of the other furry and famous animals that get the lion’s share of support from conservationists.
In fact, efforts to save the insect test the patience of many because the burying beetle — which lays its eggs in the carcasses of mice it covers in mucus — is about as uncharismatic as they come, despite its role in reusing nutrients.
"You don't walk around outside in nature and stumble on all these mummified dead carcasses," said Brett Ratcliffe, a beetle researcher at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who did not work on the agency's assessment, "because they're always being recycled by scavengers."