Austin, A&M dispute over journal article highlights warbler politics

Last year, biologists for the city of Austin wanted to publish what they considered an important research paper about a local songbird. The academic-sounding title, “Density influences accuracy of model-based estimates for a forest songbird,” didn’t hint at controversy, and the study was accepted in June for publication by the Journal of Field Ornithology.

Authored principally by city biologist Lisa O’Donnell, the 10-page study concluded that several recently developed models that predict the population of the golden-cheeked warbler — including one created by Texas A&M University researchers — exaggerated the bird’s abundance. The numbers are significant because the warbler’s low population contributed to the federal government’s decision, in 1990, to list it as an endangered species, erecting steep legal barriers to development of its habitat.

The paper was scheduled to be published in the December edition of the journal. But that was before the Texas A&M researchers, some of them no longer at the university, caught wind of it. Working behind the scenes, the Aggie biologists lobbied to have the paper spiked.

Two months ago, they succeeded. In late November, the journal announced it was retracting the city’s paper.

Journal editor Gary Ritchison didn’t return phone calls or emails. In correspondence and interviews, the A&M researchers cited technical scientific errors and breaches of academic ethics as motivation for their campaign to scuttle the Austin study. “It’s plagiarism,” said Neal Wilkins, one of the original A&M authors.

Yet like so much of the conversation surrounding the tiny yellow bird whose nesting grounds are rooted in increasingly valuable Hill Country real estate, little about the warbler is as straightforward as it seems, and politics can seep through even the supposedly objective halls of scientific inquiry.

The Aggie model being tested by the city was featured in a 2012 paper funded by the Texas Department of Transportation. In it, the A&M biologists concluded the warbler’s population to be nearly 20 times higher than earlier counts. The paper was divisive from the start, with some scientists, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, dismissing it as flawed.

Still, TxDOT has used the A&M model in its road planning through warbler territory. Pro-development opponents of the bird’s endangered status, including Susan Combs — who as state comptroller actively resisted endangered species listings — also seized on the findings. Citing the A&M paper as proof federal protections were no longer needed, six months ago they petitioned Washington to de-list the warbler, which would open up tens of thousands of acres to more intensive development.

Academic retractions are rare — about one-quarter of 1 percent of published papers, according to the online journal Retraction Watch — and some observers have questioned the A&M group’s motives, wondering why scientists would work so hard to kill a study that seemed a legitimate contribution to a debate over the warbler’s future.

“The golden-cheeked warbler already has an uncertain future as more and more land is developed in the Hill Country,” said Joan Marshall, director of Travis Audubon. “That’s why the science is so important — to base listing decisions on the best science available. That’s what’s frustrating about Texas A&M’s suppression of the O’Donnell article.”

By effectively preventing the city biologists from testing how their controversial warbler-counting formula worked, the College Station scientists seem to be saying that “nobody has the right to verify their results without asking their permission,” added Melinda Taylor, director of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Energy, Law and Business at the University of Texas School of Law, and an endangered species expert.

“Science is all about verifying and retesting results. That seems especially important in the context of the pending petition to de-list the warbler, which is based in part on A&M’s work.”

Banded in Balcones

The golden-cheeked warbler is found in a 33-county swath of Texas that forms a southwest-to-northeast crescent in the center of the state, through Kerrville, Austin, Fort Hood and Waco. Citing its rapidly disappearing preferred habitat of juniper and oak woodlands, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the bird endangered 25 years ago.

The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, a checkerboard of protected land owned chiefly by Austin and Travis County, was founded several years later, in 1996, as a sanctuary for the bird. Today, the preserve’s warblers are intensively tracked and monitored by a team of professionals and volunteers, who, through the use of banding, observation and call-listening, strive to account for each nesting pair on the property.

“We have some of the best data on the golden-cheeked warbler,” said O’Donnell, who, after working as a biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species program was hired by Austin in 2001. “It’s the closest thing you can come to knowing about abundance and density.”

That makes the preserve a useful baseline to field-test mathematical models aiming to estimate the warbler’s population. “There are very few studies that had the opportunity to analyze the data like we did,” she said.

O’Donnell said she thought testing the A&M model would be particularly easy because the team had conducted some of its survey work at the canyonlands preserve — which, city officials claim, meant Austin already owned the information. According to a February 2009 “Scientific Research Permit,” the city granted A&M researchers permission to conduct surveys on the property with the understanding that all data generated was “co-owned.” The contract also called for draft manuscripts containing any Balcones data to be submitted to the city for review. O’Donnell said the A&M researchers didn’t always comply.

The A&M biologists ended up publishing a series of papers based on their fieldwork, including at Balcones. Using the population model they’d devised, the studies concluded there were dramatically more of the birds than previously thought.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials based in Texas had greeted the findings, and their source, skeptically. An American-Statesman investigation last summer described long-simmering tensions between federal regulators and the comptroller’s office, which oversees endangered species in Texas.

As comptroller, Combs spent millions of dollars on research to challenge the science supporting federal protections, much of it at the A&M wildlife institute led by Wilkins. An ecologist who helped supervise the warbler work, he has served as a board member with Combs on the Texas Wildlife Association, a property rights group that supports the warbler de-listing effort. (Wilkins has said the association didn’t affect his research. If there is bad science, he has said, it was the original surveys first used to list the warbler as endangered.)

“The state — Susan Combs — very much would like to see this model used,” said Gary Mowad, who headed the federal wildlife agency’s Texas operations from 2010 to 2013. “But there were real questions about the accuracy of the model.” In 2014, the agency reaffirmed its support for keeping the warbler on the endangered species list.

A&M guards warbler data

O’Donnell said that none of the Aggie biologists’ papers contained a clear description of how the researchers had built their warbler-predicting model — one peer review had called it a “black box” — so she decided to use A&M’s raw data to test it. When the city requested the numbers, however, officials said the university unaccountably balked.

“Everyone gives us the data when the research is done,” said Sherri Kuhl, a biologist and secretary of the canyonlands preserve. But records show city officials, including then-Mayor Lee Leffingwell, twice demanded in writing that the data be turned over.

In correspondence and interviews, the A&M scientists said they gave the city everything it was entitled to. Anything they were withholding, they added, was analysis and information not covered by the contract.

The researchers also expressed concern over how O’Donnell’s team planned to use their numbers. Specifically, the Aggie biologists told city scientists that bird estimates from individual patches shouldn’t be tested against the same small land plots at Balcones. Rather, they said their model used the patch figures simply to arrive at the bigger-picture population estimate.

“It was for making estimates across the state, on a broad scale,” said Michael Morrison, a study co-author and professor in A&M’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences. “It’s as if you were going to do polling for any issue or for any presidential candidate, and you sample across the state. You wouldn’t take that model and predict what it will do for this community in Austin.”

O’Donnell said she disagreed, and, using A&M’s survey information from Balcones, went ahead with her comparison. The results were publicly released for the first time in January 2013 at a golden-cheeked warbler symposium held at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in South Austin.

The city staff’s presentation, which also included assessments of bird population-estimating models from Texas State University and the U.S. Forest Service, showed that each model tended to overestimate actual warbler counts. While A&M’s model had been accurate in a handful of the Balcones tracts, it had overpredicted warblers on many; in one location it projected 30 times as many birds as Austin staffers had determined to be there.

O’Donnell said several A&M authors, including Heather Mathewson, the lead author of the university’s 2012 paper, were at the symposium. While they exchanged brief questions and answers, O’Donnell said, none questioned her findings or methods, or demanded to be consulted on the work. (Reached at Tarleton State University, where she is now an assistant professor of wildlife biology, Mathewson declined to comment.)

O’Donnell submitted her paper in January 2015 to the Journal of Field Ornithology, a 90-year-old quarterly publication of the Association of Field Ornithologists. Following peer review, the paper was accepted and posted on the journal’s website in early September, with the promise of inclusion in the year’s final edition.

Arguing is science, too

The Aggies registered their first concerns two weeks later. “I noticed that the manuscript in early view has published what is typically considered unpublished data,” Bret Collier, now a faculty member of Louisiana State University’s School of Renewable Natural Resources, wrote in an email to Ritchison, the journal’s editor.

A three-way correspondence among Ritchison, O’Donnell and several current and former Aggie researchers continued through the fall. The A&M biologists claimed that the city’s use of the data was, variously, inappropriate because it was previously unpublished; illegal because the Balcones contract described any gathered information as “co-owned” and so A&M should have been consulted; and unethical because O’Donnell’s paper didn’t properly credit the A&M authors.

“You do not get to use data, no matter whose it is, who or where you work, or what the species is, and then publish it as your own,” Morrison said.

In a November reply, O’Donnell argued that the city’s contract gave it clear co-ownership to the warbler data collected on Balcones. If A&M was reading the deal to mean both sides had to sign off on all use of the information, she asked, then why hadn’t the Aggies consulted Austin on their papers? Finally, she pointed out that because all of the information was taxpayer-funded, it belonged in the public domain.

By working to suppress an examination of their work, she concluded, the Aggie scientists were subverting the scientific process. A&M’s biologists were “violating basic ethical principles of scientific conduct. … Disagreement is an inherent, necessary, and integral part of science, and should not be used to delay or retract another scientist’s publication.”

Two weeks later, however, Ritchison sided with the Aggies. “You are certainly welcome to resubmit your manuscript,” he wrote. But, he added, only after consulting with the A&M researchers.

Daryl Slusher, assistant director of Austin Water Utility, which oversees the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, said the city intends to protest the ornithology journal’s decision: “We’re going to fight to make sure the science on this prevails.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the title of Joan Marshall, director of Travis Audobon.

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