Last week, Ian Thomas posted a map on a U.S. government Web site of the caribou calving areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area the Bush administration wants to open up for oil exploration.
This week, Thomas is looking for a new job.
"I'm really flabbergasted," Thomas said Wednesday. "After putting out 20,000 maps with no problem and then putting out one where baby caribou like to hang out, I got fired."
Thomas, a contract employee for the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, says he is a victim of politics. His offense: drawing attention to wildlife that might be affected by drilling.
"They're firing him in a real public way as a message," said Eric Wingerter, the national field director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Frankly, it's a bit Orwellian."
Government officials say he was fired for working outside of his assigned duties. And besides, some of the map information was wrong.
But the episode illustrates the political sensitivity of the refuge proposal as Congress and the administration prepare to deal with the issue.
Thomas had worked for the Patuxent facility for three years, helping researchers track the changing distribution of birds across North America.
But he also helped create a global environmental atlas on the Web site. Last week, he posted 1,000 maps on every national wildlife refuge and national park in the mainland United States, including the "postcard-sized" Alaska map.
Within days, he was out of work. "The reason they gave me was that I didn't follow standard review procedures before posting research information to the Web, especially on a very sensitive topic," Thomas said. But he said no one had mentioned that to him before. And by his estimation, he had posted about 20,000 maps on the same site.
President Bush wants to open up part of the 19.2 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, a move opposed by environmentalists.
And just as Thomas was posting his map, other officials from the USGS from Alaska were briefing Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton in Washington on the very issue. Thomas' map, based on outdated wildlife data, conflicted with information presented to her.
"The fallout would not have been so great had the subject matter not been one of the . . . super hot topics with the new administration and had we not been briefing the Secretary at the nearly exact time your website went up," Brad Griffith, of the USGS biological resources division in Fairbanks, Alaska, wrote in an e-mail to Thomas on Monday. "Everyone is nervous and as I mentioned earlier, consistency in presentation is paramount."
Thomas said he believes the USGS overreacted, though he added, "I definitely made a mistake in using maps that were inaccurate."
Jay Hestbeck, chief of research at Patuxent, said Thomas' contract was due to expire in three weeks anyway. He said he was let go because he was "doing work outside of his task order" and posting it on the Web site without approval.
"Ian's task is real clear," Hestbeck said. "He's to be working on migratory birds."
Thomas said he saw his posting of the maps as a public service.
"I basically thought I could give the public a better map of the area so people could know what they were talking about when they were debating the issue," he said.