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Federal biologist resigns over fish kill

A federal biologist has resigned, saying his team’s advice was illegally ignored prior to a massive 2002 Klamath River fish kill and accusing the government of politicizing scientific decision-making.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A federal biologist who said his team’s advice was illegally ignored prior to a massive 2002 Klamath River fish kill has resigned, accusing the government of politicizing scientific decision-making and misleading the public.

Michael Kelly had sought federal whistleblower protection after he complained the Bush administration violated the Endangered Species Act by pressuring for altered scientific findings by the review team he led for the National Marine Fisheries Service, now NOAA Fisheries.

“My efforts were ultimately unproductive,” Kelly laments in his resignation letter, released Wednesday through Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represented Kelly in the whistleblower case first reported by The Associated Press. “Threatened coho salmon in the Klamath basin still do not have adequate flow conditions to assure their survival.”

Kelly alleged his team’s recommendations were twice rejected as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation imposed lower water levels than were scientifically justified.

California wildlife officials, environmentalists, fishermen and Indian tribes blame low water levels for the death of 33,000 salmon that fall, amounting to nearly a quarter of the projected fall run in the river flowing from south central Oregon through northwest California.

No internal inquiry, but court weighs in
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel declined to investigate Kelly’s complaint, saying it could neither prove “gross mismanagement” by NOAA Fisheries even if the agency relied on conflicting science nor prove a cause-and-effect relationship between the low water decision and the subsequent die-off.

Kelly’s testimony has since been key in a federal court ruling overturning the agency’s long-term water flow plan for the Klamath, though a decision allowing the government to proceed with its plans through 2008 is under appeal.

Kelly resigned from the agency’s Arcata, Calif., office Friday after nine years, saying Regional Manager Jim Lecky had again intervened in overturning his finding in the latest project to which he was assigned. He feared a repeat of his ethical predicament two years ago.

“It’s pretty broad brush, the way he paints it,” said NOAA Fisheries spokesman Jim Milbury. “Those are Mike’s opinions and beliefs. I don’t know that they’re shared by anyone else but him.” The agency is bound by rules and regulations that govern how it handles specific decisions, he said.

Pond project
The latest project is a proposal by the California Department of Fish and Game to rebuild a collapsed levee and re-establish a freshwater pond in what has become a salt marsh at the mouth of the Eel River. Kelly found that the marsh has become an important rearing area for young threatened chinook salmon and other species.

He objects in his letter that the state agency appears to want to turn it back into a freshwater pond mainly to concentrate ducks for convenient hunting. Karen Kovacs, a senior state biologist supervisor, said the state manages the 2,200-acre Eel River Wildlife Area for all aquatic wildlife — freshwater and saltwater — and to that end wants to re-establish a 120-acre pond that collapsed six years ago, while leaving 200 acres as a salt marsh.

Kelly is the latest in a recent string of scientists to accuse the Bush administration of substituting policy for science, charges the administration denies.

In his Tuesday resignation letter, he accuses his agency of doing so in recent decisions not to list the green sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act; counting hatchery raised salmon along with wild salmon in protection decisions; and an attempt, since blocked by a judge, to alter the definition of dolphin-safe tuna.

Kelly’s resignation letter is online at