Federal whistleblower quits, alleges
politicization of science
in massive 2002 Klamath River fish kill
SACRAMENTO - 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.
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.
NOAA Fisheries officials had no immediate comment.
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.
As a result of Kelly's finding, PEER called on the state to drop the proposal.
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.
"My particular case is just symptomatic of this agency's failure to correctly apply science and
caution to its decisions and public pronouncements. I speak for many of my fellow biologists who
are embarrassed and disgusted by the agency's apparent misuse of science," Kelly wrote.
"Federal service has just lost another biologist with the integrity to speak up," said Karen
Schambach, director of PEER's California office. "It is becoming increasingly difficult for
self-respecting scientists to continue working in agencies where politics now routinely and
flagrantly trump science."
ON THE NET
Read Kelly's allegations in the Klamath water case at http://www.peer.org/kellynarrative.pdf
Read the final biological opinion at