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Technician Sacked Over Caribou Map

23 March 2001 7:00 pm
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Where to roam? A controversy erupted after a federal contractor posted a range map for caribou.

Tensions over the Bush Administration's desire to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) are causing jitters at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), where a flap over a flawed map of caribou calving grounds has triggered the dismissal of a contractor and a flurry of outrage on the Internet.

Ian Thomas, a cartographer contracted to make bird maps at USGS's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, liked to post maps on all manner of conservation topics--from tiger habitats to Chinese land cover--on his USGS site. On 7 March he put up some new maps of refuges, including one cobbled together from several government maps that purported to show areas in the arctic refuge needed by caribou. The map touched on a red-hot political issue: The Bush Administration's proposal to drill for oil in ANWR, which environmental groups vehemently argue would be disastrous for caribou and other wildlife. When USGS caribou biologist Brad Griffith in Alaska saw the map, he e-mailed Thomas and told him to take it off the Web, saying it was out of date, overestimated habitat needs, and was "completely inappropriate."

Before Thomas could respond, however, the matter reached Patuxent officials, who say it was only the latest instance of Thomas straying from assigned duties into his own projects and then posting them on Patuxent's site without getting anybody's approval. "We don't just put anything up. ... He was doing whatever he wanted to do, and we had no scientific confidence in the information," says Jay Hestbeck, the center's research chief. On 12 March, Patuxent brass barred Thomas from his computer and shut down his site for "peer review."

The move didn't silence Thomas. He's now working temporarily at the World Wildlife Fund and is publicizing his experience on a new Web site (www.maptricks.com). His dismissal is meant to be "an example to other Federal scientists" of what can happen if they don't keep their distance from hot issues, he says. Even Griffith says if ANWR were not such a hot issue, Thomas wouldn't have gotten into trouble. Some at Patuxent agree. If the map had shown "chickadees in Chincoteague," he'd still be on the job, says Sam Droege, a zoologist at the center.

Related sites
Thomas's map site at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

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