Government Suppression of Science

The United States federal government has supported research on the wildlife of the Arctic Refuge through the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) since the agency’s creation in the mid-twentieth century. Initially, biologists studied the region’s caribou using aerial photography, leading to the identification and naming of the Porcupine caribou herd in the 1950s. The creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960 extended this research by establishing management and monitoring protocols for the public lands.

In the 1970s and 80s, scientific research on caribou and other wildlife became embroiled in the debate over extracting fossil fuels from the Refuge. The 1980 bill that created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANILCA, stipulated that the FWS conduct research on the potential impacts of drilling on the Porcupine caribou calving grounds on the coastal plain. Beginning in the 1980s, studies conducted by agency biologists have consistently suggested that drilling the Arctic Refuge would compromise the ability of the herd to sustain itself.

This research culminated in a 1987 impact report that would disseminate the findings to Congress and the public. However, these results threatened to impede the Reagan administration’s attempts to open the coastal plain to drilling. Rather than release the research in its original form, Secretary of the Interior Don Hodel produced an edited version of the report that ignored the data and distorted the findings of the department’s own biologists. Hodel’s “Secretary’s Recommendation” section suggested, against all evidence, that “caribou [could] coexist successfully with oil development.” After the department falsified another report on the expected impacts of oil development later that same year, FWS biologist Pamela Miller became a whistleblower. Using Miller as an informant, a 1988 article by the New York Times exposed the agency’s suppression of its own scientists, leading to a backlash against Hodel and the administration.

As the FWS continued to conduct research on the Arctic Refuge in the new millennium, pro drilling interests in the government again attempted to supress their work. After being asked by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to prepare a report on the historic calving range of the Porcupine caribou herd, agency biologist Fran Mauer was shocked to find that George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton made significant changes before sending it to the committee. When compared to Mauer’s original report, Norton’s altered version downplayed any evidence that drilling might impact caribou calving, along with other drastic omissions and changes. Like Miller, Mauer became a whistleblower when he took the story to the Washington Post.

The most recent Republican administration has continued to distort federal science on the Arctic Refuge. As Politico’s Adam Federman has reported, the Trump administration rushed and falsified an Environmental Impact Statement required to lease land in the Arctic Refuge after it succeeded in passing an Arctic drilling provision.