As species decline, so does research funding

Sen. Tom Coburn's misrepresentation of research has the potential to affect wildlife conservation for years

As I rubbed the frostbite out of my hands on returning from a seal survey on Antarctic ice recently, I was informed that I had the dubious distinction of making the Top 5 in the 2014 list of wasteful scientists compiled by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). According to Coburn's “Wastebook,” I had egregiously squandered $856,000 of taxpayer money on training mountain lions to walk on a treadmill.

The project the senator referred to was to design and test a new high-tech wildlife collar that measured the instantaneous energy use, hunting behavior and movement patterns of large carnivores such as mountain lions. Our goal was to provide a new tool for wildlife conservation. The project took four years and involved many biologists, engineers, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, undergraduate students and research technicians.

Ultimately, we developed an innovative technology for monitoring wild carnivores. And, yes, the research involved calibrating the specially designed collars on three mountain lions trained to walk on a treadmill; this was followed by tests on free-ranging wild lions in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The wildlife collars we designed can be used to avoid human-animal conflicts by predicting when and where predatory animals hunt. In the process, they will help save human lives, our pets and livestock, as well as the large predatory mammals that represent the “top-of-the-food chain” glue holding our ecosystems together. It is a problem that's all too familiar in densely populated California, where human-wildlife encounters have increased.

The senator's misrepresentation of our research has the potential to affect wildlife conservation for years to come. The reaction to the mountain-lions-on-treadmill sound bite has been swift, with people in the media and across the Internet calling our project “dubious,” “absurd,” “ridiculous,” “outlandish” and more. They judged without reading the study; they condemned without contacting us. We even made the monologues of late-night comedians.

The public was misinformed about science and scientists.

How this will reverberate among funding agencies and the next generation of wildlife biologists is unknown. Currently, the funding level for animal biology at the National Science Foundation — the primary agency supporting biological research on marine and terrestrial wildlife — is at an all-time low. Less than 10% of grant proposals submitted to the biological division of the agency get funded. The level is even more dismal for proposals focusing on large animals such as lions, wolves, pandas, dolphins or elephants. The fact is, grant proposals on single-celled organisms are 26 to 44 times more likely to be funded than those studying big wild animals.

This lack of funding has created a deficit in knowledge that has left humans in the dark about the basic biology of large wild animals and how to live with them. More than 25% of the world's mammals are threatened with extinction. More than half of all mammalian species populations are now in decline, with the largest mammals disappearing at exceptionally high rates. River dolphins, African lions, monk seals, cheetahs, mountain gorillas and vaquitas — the rarest porpoise that lives in the northern Gulf of California — are slipping away before our eyes. The cost to our ecosystem from the loss of so many species is unknown. How many cards can you remove before the entire house falls down?

We are losing species because of our scientific ignorance, something that biologists like myself find inexcusable. This ignorance is based on two erroneous beliefs of the public. The first, as implied in the senator's report on our project, is that we already know everything there is to know about animal biology. The second is that there exists some funding agency, nongovernmental organization or philanthropist that will pay for the conservation of endangered species. Neither belief could be further from the truth.

So biologists often use their own money to help support their work. The senator's report failed to note that my time involving the treadmill-walking mountain lions and their trainers was never charged to the grant. I felt that the work was so crucial that I volunteered my time.

Coburn states in the introduction to his “Wastebook” that his mission is to reduce “the burden of debt being left to be paid off by our children and grandchildren.” Here we nearly agree. My mission is to reduce the burden of environmental debt that will have to be paid off by our children and grandchildren, before it is too late for nature to recover. The creatures of the wild, from pumas to pandas and wild dogs to dolphins, belong to them.

Terrie M. Williams is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and author of "The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal and a Marine Biologist's Fight to Save a Species." She is currently doing research in Antarctica.

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