California DFW: Driving Down The Road To Squishy Science

Jim Matthews

April 17, 2017 — I was reminded this week of the terrifying expression that says, “As California goes, so goes the rest of the country.” I live in the Golden State and I fear for the rest of the country, and pray the expression is out-of-date. Hillary Clinton won here with over 60 percent of the vote, sort of an indicator of how out-of-touch this state has become.

As a hook-and-bullet writer for over 40 years here, I can track California’s decline by our Department of Fish and Game – ummm, I’m sorry – it’s now called more politically correct Department of Fish and Wildlife, now a toxic sink hole where there used to be a pristine alpine lake.

The director of this agency is appointed by the Governor, and the current director, Charlton “Chuck” Bonham, is a non-meat eating, liberal Democrat attorney, from Trout Unlimited (shame on them).

Last week I was forwarded the most recent “podcast” from Bonham, the 45 he’s done since taking over the job. Bonham does these podcasts as sort of an internal communication form with the DFW staff to talk about things he sees as important for the agency and where it is making progress, although that word is used dubiously. The podcasts are not meant for public consumption, but they are posted on YouTube. (Apparently they are on some private channel because you can’t find them by searching YouTube, but if someone forwards you the link….) I get notified as soon as they are up because a number of DFW employees find them so entertaining – and by entertaining I really mean “laughable” – they send them on to me.

This most recent podcast was very enlightening and will serve to illustrate how the Golden State has become a Brown Stain. It was about – to the best of my deciphering of tortured political-speak and bureaucratic jargon – two things: A multi-year effort to create a new “product” regarding wildlife incidents and complaints, and second, there was a side-discussion of “human dimensions of wildlife,” and how the DFW was going to integrate this new field of study into managing the state’s wildlife – or people – or how people feel about wildlife and wildlife science. Or something like that. Heck, I’m not sure what this new field of study really is about.

The podcast was a discussion between Bonham and Marc Kenyon, a wildlife biologist – excuse me, senior environmental scientist – with the DFW.

(The title change from wildlife biologist to senior environmental scientist netted Kenyon and all other “seniors” a 30 percent pay raise a couple of seasons ago, and now the DFW can’t figure out why it has to cut programs because they have run out of money. But that’s off topic….)

Kenyon is in charge of putting together this new “wildlife incident reporting system,” which has taken over a year to prepare and won’t be fully operational until after at least a year of testing, which begins in May, and only if it gets approval in Sacramento. After that year-plus of testing and ironing out the bugs, it will then “stand up,” which I assume means “start for real” in less-tortured English.

As best I can tell, the wildlife incident reporting system is a database that allows selecting and sorting by categories. I know, you can do that with any database, but this one is special (think short buses):

When an environmental scientist gets a call from a homeowner in, say, Palmdale, with a half-squashed squirrel trying to claw its way out of the street, they will know what other environmental scientists facing that difficult task have done. The new reporting system will have the environmental scientist interview the whole neighborhood, recording how they reacted to the squirrel incident and the DFW’s handling of the situation, and also report how it played on the evening news and Internet. The whole process will generate reams of paper, or gigabytes of electronic data. The multiple forms that must be filled out will keep the environmental scientist at his or her computer for days after investigating one road-killed squirrel. That will necessitate the hiring of even more high-paid environmental scientists to investigate the growing number of wildlife incidents.
The incident reporting system will be jam-packed with searchable data so in the future the DFW can handle every incident without getting on the evening news. That, if I’m interpreting Bonham’s words correctly, is the goal of all this effort.

“It’s going to be great when we are all finished and ready to roll it out,” said Kenyon with a straight face in the podcast. (Kenyon has been described as a “wackadoodle” to me by colleagues.)

I’m sorry if I sound dubious. Back when the DFW was still DFG and had field biologists who actually spoke with people and worked with wildlife, they would have just euthanized the squirrel and told everyone it was the most humane thing to do. The DFW would have relied on a trained field biologist’s expertise. No reports, no news media analysis, no concern about phone calls from animal rights groups.

But at this point in the podcast, the conversation veered to a discussion about “Human Dimensions of Wildlife,” as a new area of scientific study. This was new to me. So I went on line and spent hours reading about the new field. I even read five or six scientific paper abstracts in this field, and it seems to me like a squishy version of market research and polling, but those are old terms people understand. “Human dimensions of wildlife” sounds sexy and no one has any idea what it means.

(The best that I can tell, it is the “human dimensions of wildlife” field that led us to introduce the wrong wolf subspecies into Yellowstone because some humans wanted wolves back into that ecosystem at all costs, and that trumped putting the right type of wolf back into that ecosystem. But wolves are also off topic….)

Here are some honest-to-God titles of papers published in this field in the so-called scientific publication called “Human Dimensions of Wildlife, An International Journal”:

“Examining Human Perception of Elephants and Large Trees for Insights Into Conservation of an African Savanna Ecosystem”;

“Beach-User Attitudes to Shark Bite Mitigation Strategies on Coastal Beaches; Sydney, Australia”;

“A Hedonic Analysis of Big Game Hunting Club Dues in Georgia, USA”;

“Exploring the Influence of Charismatic Characteristics on Flagship Outcomes in Zoo Visitors.”

I’m not making this up. I’m sure these are all university- or government-funded studies that ask people how they feel about what should be scientific decisions based on real science. Science should not be based on market research. I read the abstracts on all of these papers, and besides the use of obtuse language (“Hedonic”? Really? “Flagship Outcomes”? What the hell is wrong with these people?), they are taking natural resource management and conservation away from real science-based decisions. This is the new squishy science that will give us things like, “if everyone thinks it’s OK for mountain lions to eat children on hiking trails, why should we do anything to prevent it.”

But that’s just me, an increasingly grumpy old man, saying that.

Bonham would tell you he is a forward-thinking intellectual who is shaping the direction of DFW for the next 50 years, and this “Human Dimensions of Wildlife” thing is the direction he has been taking the DFW, making it more enlightened and inclusive, giving the legislature cover for their moronic decision, like banning lead ammunition for hunting.

Today, Bonham has assured it takes forever to get anything done within the DFW (three years to create a database, really?), that nothing gets done that benefits wildlife or wildlife habitat, and that science has taken a backseat to the “human dimension,” which is increasing excluding the humans who hunt and fish and still pay the bulk of the DFW’s bills.

I think Bonham is part of the bureaucratic and legislative swamp here in California that needs to be drained.

[Editor’s note: If you would like to watch the Bonham podcast for yourself, it is at this direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KD8u8thbKw4&feature=youtu.be . Matthews calls it 12 minutes of pure torture.]

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