Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New UA study team has ties to Macho B's death

    In June 2011, a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Border Patrol watched a large, spotted feline amble through the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.
    The sighting meant that Macho B, the nation's only known wild jaguar when he was unlawfully captured and then euthanized in 2009, finally had been replaced. The revelation came just as the University of Arizona's Wild Cat Research and Conservation Center received a $771,000 federal contract to study jaguars.
    Scientists are setting 240 motion-activated cameras along wilderness trails to monitor the endangered species' travel and habitat. They will also use a specially trained dog to find scat for genetic analysis.
The research, financed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has major implications for the border-security fence in southern Arizona. It also may influence the outcome of legal battles over the designation of jaguar habitat.
    In a news release, project manager Lisa Haynes described the contract as a "significant win" for the wild-cat center because there was stiff competition for the money. Another faculty member, Kirk Emerson, added, "We look at this project as an opportunity for a fresh start regarding jaguar monitoring in the United States."
    The news release did not mention that some members of the university's study team played prominent roles in the saga of Macho B.
    One of the researchers, Ron Thompson, was the Arizona Game and Fish Department's large-carnivore biologist when Macho B died. Emil McCain, who was convicted in the case, told The Arizona Republic that Thompson pressed him to snare Macho B and afterward to cover up. E-mail records show that Thompson was advised of the snares, sent messages encouraging McCain, and celebrated the capture.
    Agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service referred Thompson for criminal charges, according to federal records, but the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to prosecute.
    In interviews with federal agents and The Republic, Thompson denied plotting to catch the cat or knowing that snares were set in the jaguar's vicinity.
    Thompson now serves as field biologist and security adviser for the wild-cat center's study. His student son, Kyle, also is listed as a field biologist on the project.
    Jack Childs, another member of the university's team, was co-director with McCain at the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, a non-profit organization that used trail cameras to monitor Macho B. He helped develop capture plans for the Jaguar Conservation Team, an agency run by Arizona and New Mexico wildlife officials.
    Federal investigators concluded that the Jaguar Detection Project arguably was part of a conspiracy in Macho B's capture. Childs was referred for prosecution but not charged. In interviews with law-enforcement agents and The Republic, he denied participating in such a plot.

There's that "declined to prosecute" again.  The private contractor they decided to prosecute had this to say:

McCain, the biologist held legally culpable for the jaguar Macho B's capture, also expressed bewilderment. "Now, the man that organized the capture of Macho B and ... placed all blame on me is being paid, along with his son, to conduct the study that I proposed, designed, wrote and presented to federal agencies," said McCain, who is banned from conducting U.S. research for five years under terms of a federal plea agreement. "My professional career has been ruined over the Macho B incident, but the man who was my supervisor with the government agency who instructed me to try to catch the jaguar has skated unscathed through the whole thing."

But, I'm sure the governmental entities involved with this study have nothing to hide.  After all, they are simply conducting scientific research with public funds, right?  Well...

It is unclear how the UA team won the jaguar contract because government agencies failed to provide the relevant public records and key officials declined to comment. The Fish and Wildlife Service released some documents, but pages were heavily redacted in apparent violation of the Freedom of Information Act. For example, the agency deleted the number and identity of contract bidders, the contents of their proposals and factors used in selecting the winner. UA released documents last week but blacked out numerous sections in violation of state public-records law. For example, university officials redacted all references to Childs, Thompson, McCain and the Borderland Jaguar Detection Project. They also deleted paragraphs explaining objectives of the research.

Objectives of the research?  The public doesn't have a right to know the objectives of a research project funded by the public?  What are they hiding and why?  Some names may be excluded because of the Privacy Act and Homeland Security may not want some of the details related to the fence made public, but everything else should be released. Let's hope the Arizona Republic continues to pursue these FOIA and open records requests.

So why all these machinations over the contracts and studies?

There's the money of course - $771,000 of it and probably more to come (The Bush Administration pledged a total of $50 million).

And there's also opportunities to influence significant policy outcomes:

The question of jaguar turf has major implications because developments in protected zones would face environmental reviews and potential lawsuits. Already, environmentalists are arguing that a trail-camera photograph of a jaguar's tail near the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine about 30 miles south of Tucson should block the controversial project. Habitat designation elsewhere also could have an impact on planned roadways, grazing leases and homebuilding.

Also discussed in the article is how the study could influence the construction of the border security fence and the designation of critical habitat.

So money meant for border security is ripped off for environmental studies, those administering and conducting the study have been investigated but not prosecuted, and the study could determine the future of a border security fence and through habitat designation the future of a copper mine and livestock grazing, home building, etc. over a potential  9,000 square miles.

Is that about where we are and does the USFWS really believe a study conducted by this bunch will have any credibility at all with the public?

My previous posts are here and here and praise goes to Dennis Wagner and the Arizona Republic for their series of investigative articles.  

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