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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.
So in September, Patton reluctantly quit his job with the Fish and Wildlife Service and accepted a new position with the Forest Service in Colorado, where he'll be working on a conservation project for various species. Sharon Rose, another Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, says she can't comment on Patton's grievance filing; although he dropped the complaint after he left the agency, it's still considered a confidential personnel issue.
For his part, Patton is still upset by what happened and remains convinced that his work on the lynx listing was responsible. "I was just trying to do my job," he explains.
After the Fish and Wildlife Service agrees to list an animal as "threatened" -- likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future -- wildlife officials write what is known as a "rule" explaining the threats that exist and the protections that need to be put into place. The rule regarding the lynx was so weak, critics say, that it's now being challenged in U.S. District Court by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife and several other environmental groups. According to Jasper Carlton, director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, under the current listing, lynx habitat can't be considered jeopardized by such threats as logging or recreational development, because Fish and Wildlife claims there's only one distinct population of lynx in the country. Like Patton, the plaintiffs believe that Fish and Wildlife should recognize four distinct lynx populations: the Northeast, the Great Lakes, the Northern Rockies and Cascades, and the Southern Rockies. "How can you say a ski resort in Colorado is jeopardizing the lynx in all of the United States?" Carlton asks. "You can't. If you say the lynx in the Southern Rockies is a distinct population, then you can say that ski-area expansions or motorized recreational trails jeopardize lynx habitat."
These environmental groups echo Patton's charge that Fish and Wildlife is reluctant to place species on the endangered or threatened list because of pressure from private landowners, who feel burdened by the restrictions such protections place on the development of their property; in addition, the listings are difficult to enforce because of the sheer volume of land in this country. According to Patton, the lynx listing is particularly touchy politically because the animal's range is so broad: Outside of Canada and Alaska, the lynx resides in fourteen states stretching from Washington to New York.
Although Patton started his new job as a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service on September 10, he's not yet sure whether he'll get a chance to work on lynx preservation there. His supporters worry that his departure from Fish and Wildlife signals the end of any significant lynx conservation in Colorado.
"But I'm glad he's still in government service," Carlton says. "He can make a major contribution wherever he is, but he was in a leadership role at the Fish and Wildlife Service -- he was the person in Colorado who was pushing the most for the restoration of lynx habitat."