Cowardice at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

     In my nearly 30 years covering pollution issues at National Wildlife Refuges, I have come across several courageous field level employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and a few cowards in management positions, managers who are afraid of politicians, polluters, and their own shadows.  A good example is the debacle at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the early 1980s, where toxic selenium-tainted agricultural waste water from the Westlands Water District polluted the food chain in evaporation ponds at the Merced County "refuge," a supposed haven for migratory ducks and birds, triggering deformities and reproductive failure.  There were heroes like biologist Felix Smith - who leaked the Kesterson findings to Fresno Bee reporter Deborah Blum, and there were cowards in the Portland regional office who participated in a cover-up to delay release of the Kesterson findings.

      A few years later, Fish and Wildlife biologist Joe Skorupa came under attack for his field investigations of selenium poisoning of birds at farm waste water evaporation in the Tulare Lake Basin, south of the Westlands in western Kings and Kern counties.  The Tulare Lake bed, prime cotton farming country, was the home of mega-grower J.G. Boswell and other major absentee agriculturists, who didn't like Skorupa poking around and uncovering pollution problems at their poisonous evaporation ponds.  So the big growers leaned on the area politicians who leaned on the Fish and Wildlife Service and pretty soon Skorupa's investigation at Tulare Lake was over and he was sent packing, even though his meticulous research showed there was a selenium problem in the Tulare Basin.  Call Skorupa a hero for standing up.


     Fast forward 25 years.  On February 22, The New York Times ran an article about two-headed trout turning up in streams in eastern Idaho which had been polluted by phosphate mine tailings at an operation run by the mammoth J.R. Simplot fertilizer company.  Cause of the grotesque deformities in the fish was selenium, a trace micronutrient that is necessary for humans and animals in small amounts but toxic in slightly higher amounts.   The well-written New York Times article by Leslie Kaufman,  to my knowledge was not picked up by any major California newspapers even though it mentioned Kesterson and discussed the selenium pollution problems in both the agriculture and mining industries, and the inability or unwillingness of Fish and Wildlife or EPA to establish selenium discharge safety standards for wildlife in aquatic habitats. (Just Google two-headed trout and New York Times for a link to the Kaufman article.)

    In Kauffman's article, it was pointed out that Skorupa, still with FWS after all these years, had written a critical review of a J.R. Simplot report which contended not only that  the mining company could continue dumping selenium into the creeks, it wanted to actually raise the amount of dumping permitted.  Skorupa called the Simplot report "biased" and "highly questionable."  That did not endear him to his superiors even though he was correct. 

    I've learned staffers of comedian Jon Stewart of the Daily Show have been poking around about the two-headed trout story and wanted to interview Skorupa, unquestionably one of the premier selenium wildlife toxicology experts in the U.S.  Skorupa, now working in the Washington, D.C. area, was denied permission to speak to the folks at the Daily Show by his superiors in the FWS Director's Office.   Now the Daily Show only does fake news but Stewart loves taking shots at the hypocrisy and flaws of government agencies and mainstream media.  I'm sure Stewart will have a field day with two-headed trout.

  So is acting FWS director Rowan Gould a coward when it comes to defending his scientists or does he rationalize his muzzling of Skorupa for political/financial reasons?

   You see, Idaho seven-term Rep. Mike Simpson, R-2nd District, serves on the House Appropriations Committee and also chairs that committee's Subcommittee on Interior and Environment.  In other words, Simpson controls the Fish and Wildlife Service's budget.   It also turns out Simplot's Smoky Canyon Mine, which is causing the two-headed trout, is in Rep. Simpson's district. So while FWS officials bloviate before Congress about "sound science" and protecting the integrity of scientific inquiry, they quickly turn tail and run when a Congressman rattles his budget sword.

    What can you do? First, forward this article to as many friends as you have.  Second, email the Fish and Wildlife Service  (www.fws.gov)  and tell them to let Joe Skorupa appear on the Daily Show.  Third, send copies of your FWS email to Stewart's Show.  Why is scientific expertise being muzzled in America?