By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary Patton devoted four years to developing conservation strategies for the Canada lynx, a wild cat species on the decline in North America. But this past February, he suddenly found his own job on the endangered list.
Patton joined the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991, after working with the agency while doing Colorado Division of Wildlife contract jobs evaluating northwest Colorado for the possible introduction of black-footed ferrets. People from Fish and Wildlife "liked my work so much, they talked me into a job," Patton says.
Initially, his assignment there focused on recovering ferret habitat. Six years later, he was given the job of developing a strategy for protecting the Canada lynx on federal land in the southern Rockies and other historic lynx territory. The Colorado Division of Wildlife was so concerned with the species' dwindling numbers that it began introducing more lynx into the mountains in 1999. Of the 96 animals released thus far, the DOW is currently tracking 46; 38 have died, and a dozen more have either slipped out of their collars or cannot be monitored because their collars have stopped working.
But at the same time he was working on the lynx project, Patton was also helping with the Platte River Cooperative Agreement, a partnership involving Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and many environmental and agricultural groups. By the start of this year, the Platte project, designed to address water depletion in the river, was entering "a critical juncture," according to Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger. Because Patton had been instrumental in bringing together the various stakeholders -- and because his salary came out of the Platte River Cooperative Agreement budget -- it was only natural to assign him to the project full-time, she says. Patton's lynx responsibilities were assumed by a Grand Junction-based wildlife biologist.
Many environmentalists who'd followed Patton's work on the lynx didn't accept the official explanation for the reassignment. They knew Patton had been a vocal advocate for listing the lynx as a threatened species even when his superiors didn't think the animal warranted such protection. After much debate, the lynx was finally listed in March 2000 -- but the way that it was listed, environmentalists charge, didn't adequately protect it. And they see Patton's removal from the project as yet another move designed to undermine conservation of the cat.
"If you understand the history of the lynx listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service defied federal court ruling after federal court ruling and was finally forced to list the lynx as threatened, so when you have an agency that puts politics ahead of biology, the most dangerous man in the world is a biologist like Gary Patton, who understands the Endangered Species Act and has some firm requirements for what you're supposed to do to protect wildlife," says Land and Water Fund of the Rockies attorney Ted Zukoski.
While environmentalists speculated about the reasons for his reassignment, Patton remained quiet for several months. Now, however, he's giving voice to what his supporters had suspected all along: that threatened-species politics were to blame for his removal from all lynx-related work. And a confidential complaint that he submitted to his boss just before his reassignment was the final straw for the agency, he charges.
Patton formally broke his silence in an official grievance filed with the Fish and Wildlife Service on April 5. "On several occasions over the past year I suggested to my supervisor that my prioritization to Platte River depletion consultations was a waste of valuable experience and ability, and that a way should be found to shift that work to entry level staff," he wrote. "After finding out in early January about the 'promotion' of a relatively new and less qualified co-worker to a senior level position above me, I verbally objected to my supervisor about the unfair pattern of opportunity for grade elevation in this office, egregiously exemplified by this 'promotion.'
"Because he refused to do anything about my concerns, I presented him with a confidential memorandum of informal grievance on February 2, 2001. He promptly shared my memorandum with regional management and personnel. On my next working day, February 6, I was informed that regional management had ordered that I be immediately removed from all work with the singular exception of the Platte River work that is at issue in this grievance."
Patton's work on lynx conservation had won him the respect of fellow biologists within the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the DOW and the U.S. Forest Service. Environmentalists praised him for practicing sound science. Even ski-industry executives said they appreciated his evenhanded approach to conservation. But relations with administrators in his own agency had soured after Patton led a group of like-minded biologists in challenging the agency's decision to withdraw an earlier proposal to list the lynx as a threatened species. He admits he "played a role in the final decision" to push through the listing, a decision his superiors disagreed with.
Patton's official grievance, claiming that his reassignment was retribution for being so vocal, went unanswered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. But after he filed it, he says, he was given menial office work that an entry-level biologist could have performed.