Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Leader Retires in Frustration
After 32 years with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Mike Lockhart is calling it quits - in disgust. For the past eight years, he has headed the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Team, which is charged with bringing one of the rarest mammals in North America back from the brink of extinction.
In a farewell letter to colleagues, Lockhart details how official indifference, crappy leadership and a profound lack of support on the ground have made recovery of the black-footed ferret an even more uphill struggle than it needed to be.www.peer.org/campaigns/whistleblower/scientific/index.php
One notable aspect of Mike's story is how rapidly the conditions for federal wildlife scientists have deteriorated inside the Fish & Wildlife Service - particularly the growing penetration of political pressures into what had formerly been scientific decisions. Read about how Mike Lockhart is far from being an isolated case and what PEER is doing to protect public agency scientists and science:www.peer.org/campaigns/whistleblower/scientific/index.php
January 7, 2008
Memorandum To: Mike Stempel, ARD, Fisheries and Ecological Services, Denver, CO
From: Mike Lockhart, former Black-footed Ferret Recovery Coordinator,
NBFFCC, Laramie, WY
Subject: Thanks, and an outgoing appraisal of ES, R6.
Following my retirement, I wanted to thank you one last time for your support of the black-footed
ferret program over this past year.
I have had a long and fulfilling career with the Service and I'm retiring with mixed emotions and
some disappointment over events of the past few years and especially the last couple of months.
The Service is not the same, and the changes are not improvements. Consequently, I wanted to
provide some personal perspective on the state of R-6, and R-6 ES in particular.
I believe these are pertinent views and as such will share them broadly with R-6 administrators,
ES coworkers, and select BFF work associates. I am providing this note only via Email.
From the time I was a freshman in high school, my only focused career pursuit was the FWS. I
had become something of a raptor nut and took up falconry in high school and through college. In
1967, I wrote to the D.C. office to inquire about work the Service was conducting on golden
eagles and got a wonderful response from Erv Boeker, a fine FWS research/pilot biologist out of
the Denver Wildlife Research Center. In 1972, Erv took me under his wing, designated me as a
banding subpermittee, and left me on my own to explore techniques for trapping and marking
migrant golden eagles in W. Texas. I went on to do both undergraduate and graduate work on
golden eagles in Texas. And later, in 1975, I got my first job with FWS (an emergency hire) to
assist in the capture of depredating golden eagles on the Helle-Rebish ranches in SW Montana.
After two previous years of largely fruitless attempts to trap eagles, 1975 efforts on the Helle-
Rebish ranches were highly successful and opened the door to a job with the FWS DWRC in fall
Since that time, I have enjoyed a wonderful career with the Service and have served as a Research
Biologist studying the effects of surface mining on resident birds of prey in the northern Great
Plains; as an energy biologist working in western Colorado; conducted contaminant assays on
free-ranging bald and golden eagles; I was the first biologist to work directly on what is now the
Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR and worked closely with Pete Gober and others to develop
programs that ultimately led to the founding of the Refuge; was responsible for oversight of the
bald eagle response activities associated with Exxon Valdez clean-up operations in 1991 and
1992; took a position with the Service's Alaska Subsistence Program during initial development
and served as both the FWS liaison to the Alaska Board of Game and Branch Chief for the
advisory board system; I returned to Colorado to take the management lead position for the
wildlife/contaminant section of the RMA NWR; and finally, took a position in 1996 with the
Service's black-footed ferret program and served as the BFF Recovery Coordinator for my final 8
years with the Service.
Over the years, I've also had opportunities to provide both official and volunteer assistance to
numerous individuals, universities, agencies, States and other countries engaged in wildlife
conservation and endangered species recovery, and on specific research projects involving bald
and golden eagles, other raptors, polar bears, and other carnivores.
I have worked under both Area Office and Regional Office organizational structures, but
predominantly in a field setting. And similar to most FWS field biologists, I feel that I always
threw myself fully into every job I've undertaken and worked without regard for extra hours,
weekends, or whatever was required. Although undoubtedly not as strong in areas of office
administration, I have other strengths and capabilities that I believe have served the FWS well
and have led to tangible accomplishments and resource gains. I have worked on many
controversial issues and with divergent, often polarized groups. I believe I have decent
communication and mediation skills that principally led to problem solutions rather than
confrontation. Finally, I pride myself on being open, forthright, and objective in all my personal
and professional dealings, both within FWS and with all other contacts and opposing interests. I
suggest my work history shows that I work well with people, but always with resource
conservation and mandated responsibilities foremost in consideration.
I bring this history up not for the purposes of self promotion, but to suggest that I have sound
experience in dealing with trust responsibilities and people, and under a variety of FWS
organizational structures and supervisors. And I have to say, that in over 32 years with FWS, I
have never experienced such poor supervisory support and direction as I have out of our R-6 ES
office over the last 4 years.
As you know, the BFF recovery program is large, complex, and often controversial and involves
a substantial partnership of agency, tribal, NGO and private parties across the U.S., Canada and
Mexico, and involves several States in R-2. I assumed the Coordinator responsibilities in 2000, at
a time when the Service had only been managing the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation
Center (NBFFCC) for five years.
At that time, our program oversaw international captive breeding efforts and activities for 8
reintroduction projects. However, since 2000, responsibilities for captive breeding (and
associated prairie dog acquisition/quarantine) increased substantially, the number of
reintroduction projects doubled, and we went through a difficult and multi-year planning and
construction process for a new breeding facility near Wellington, CO. All that has occurred
despite the fact that staffing levels to support NBFFCC operations diminished when our office
broke away from the South Dakota Field Office in 2000.
In short, program responsibilities dramatically expanded, yet we have remained severely understaffed
for the level of work needed to address the wide range of recovery tasks.
Our office contains exceptionally capable and dedicated staff responsible for the day-to-day
management of the captive breeding program. However, for field recovery responsibilities
(reintroduction projects, land use management plans, partner coordination, ferret allocations, site
and habitat assessments, working group meetings, etc.), equally important in terms of promoting
eventual BFF recovery, the only fully dedicated staff member (until recent months) was me. And
I have done my utmost to achieve my primary job responsibilities: "fostering species recovery in
Those efforts have been accomplished without any substantive support, guidance, or recognition
by recent supervisors. The operations and work of the NBFFCC over the past 4 years were
essentially independent of the RO and day-to-day workload and program priorities were set
Neither a past ARD nor DARD displayed specific interest in the ferret recovery program. Despite
repeated efforts to engage these supervisors early on, our office was visited only once by the
ARD and only twice by the DARD in perhaps the last 5 years. Outside of two (possibly 3) Blackfooted
Ferret Recovery Implementation Team (BFFRIT) annual meetings, neither individual
participated in program management assessments, project reviews (e.g. the 2003 CBSG
evaluation), any pivotal land use/habitat meetings, or other critically important recovery planning
Consequently, it is extremely disappointing and frustrating to have a RO supervisor characterize
my personal performance this year (a milestone year actually) as inferior, and be critical of
decisions I made to avoid a potentially fatal threat to years of work accomplished on a BFFRIT
recovery plan revision; and, for being outspoken about the potential impacts of a FS land use
planning effort on our most successful and important ferret recovery site (Conata Basin, SD).
Those not actively engaged in ongoing operations and decision processes for such a complex
program have no basis, and no right, for making critical assessments of work accomplishments.
That alone demonstrates how ridiculous the current performance system has become.
I deeply resent that appraisal! It was not only an unjust and petty representation of what I've
helped accomplish this year, but was a poor way of ushering a long-serving staff member out the
door. But in truth, I don't really care what my past supervisor thinks of me or my performance; I
don't have much respect for someone who makes poor assessments from such a detached
position. I'm proud of my work, both past and present. I know what I have invested in my job,
how far the recovery program has come, and what my true peers and work associates really think!
I bring this up because it is symptomatic of problems within R-6 and likely the Service in general.
Over the majority of my tenure with the Service, the RD, DRD, other RO staff, and Field
supervisors and biologists seemed to work together more closely to address FWS resource
responsibilities, and open dialog and alternative views were welcomed and weighed.
Much of that seems to have been lost over the past several years. It started even before Mitch
King became RD and undoubtedly reflects the nature of the top-down management approach of
the current Administration. However, Mitch King enormously exacerbated these problems and
was the most destructive and irresponsible RD I have ever experienced. The arrogance and
recklessness with which Mitch made unilateral decisions affecting the black-footed ferret
program have caused major, perhaps irreversible impacts to some BFF recovery sites and may
impact our ability to promote recovery projects on other federal public lands. Mitch never
consulted our office before making decisions/commitments to other agencies, States, or
politicians, and never attempted to develop a realistic understanding of the limitations and needs
of the recovery program. Mitch totally ignored our concerns and input, while taking the word of
others outside the Service who provided twisted and incorrect facts and logic.
I hope Mr. Guertin, Jay, and all who share in the responsibility of administering FWS resource
responsibilities in R-6 will take a more direct and cooperative course in working with field
biologists, will largely defer conservation direction to the expertise that exists in Field Offices,
and will better deflect outside political pressures that threaten FWS resource responsibilities. I
also hope the RO will be more careful about how regional supervisors for field offices are chosen,
and be more thorough in the review of how those supervisors oversee programs in their charge! It
is a travesty to place regional supervisors in such important positions when they have limited
experience and/or interest in the activities and responsibilities of those offices they supervise!
The RO's primary focus, at all levels of administration, including the RD, DRD, FR-ES, Refuges,
HR, Engineering, CGS (boy, are there severe support problems here!), etc., should be to support
field operations and the management, conservation, and recovery of plant and wildlife species at
ground level. That kind of support is largely absent now, and it appears that the Field instead
serves at the "beck and call" of the RO and DC, and responds to unending and questionable data
reporting requests, training, and last minute deadlines. Coupled with decreasing budgets and staff,
these tactics appears to be a calculated move to diminish attention to fundamental
Finally, I wish to comment on the Service's administration of the black-footed ferret recovery
program itself. And, I need to point out to others who may read this letter, that my frustrations
expressed herein are not directed at you, Mike. I sincerely appreciate your immediate assistance
and the righting of several wrongs that our program was experiencing at the time you assumed
responsibility for both the Fisheries and ES programs last year. You have been an enthusiastic
and thoughtful supporter of the ferret program and you have helped develop a new organizational
structure and support increased staffing that will promote continued progress. I have great
confidence in you, Henry Maddux, and Pete Gober.
But, at every step of FWS involvement in the recent political fray over Conata Basin (since
2004), the RO facilitated Forest Service efforts to limit discussion and perspective on the
consequences of the planning and proposed actions for the Nebraska National Grassland land use
The Service had previously maintained a consistent position on the importance of Conata Basin
and for expanding BFF recovery efforts over other National Grasslands since the late 1990s.
However, my responsibilities and input as recovery coordinator on this issue were largely
circumvented by RO staff in recent years. And although I understand that you, Jay and others
were put in an awkward position by Mitch, attempts to negotiate varying compromises in "caps"
of prairie dog habitats were wrong and still can, if implemented, seriously impact overall ferret
recovery. It remains to be seen what the FS will eventually do, but I take some comfort in the fact
that political pressures from other outside interests may have finally swayed the FS and that they
realize the folly of drastic alterations of prairie dog numbers in Conata Basin.
The Service should have never supported efforts to satisfy a ridiculous position brought about by
the State of SD and a careless Forest Supervisor.
The FS did an outstanding job of developing the Conata Basin site in the first place (starting in
1996), and if they choose to succumb to political pressures and compromise the integrity of our
best recovery area, the Service should not willingly go along for the ride. Besides reversing many
years of progress and throwing away hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process, the
credibility of the FWS would be severely damaged. Conata Basin was (is) indeed a sword FWS
should be willing to fall on! Please do not compromise what has been accomplished at Conata
Basin, and please take every opportunity to reinforce plans for expanding recovery projects over
other FS and BLM public lands across the species range, wherever possible.
I regret leaving FWS at this time. I loved my career, and I have many good years ahead of me. I
will remain active in wildlife conservation work and would have preferred to continue with FWS,
perhaps by seeking a transfer.
However, personal life changes tie me solidly to Wyoming and I was not willing to continue
work under the frustrations of the past few years and under the same line of supervision. I will be
following the progress of the BFF recovery program with great interest and hope, and am willing
to assist the Service through volunteer work whenever and wherever possible.
Finally, I wanted to ensure that others reading this letter understand that my personal frustrations
are limited in scope and do not reflect my overall opinion of Service staff. To be sure, the
considerable success of the ferret recovery program was possible only through the hard work and
dedication of many involved cooperators and other FWS biologists and administrative staff at the
NBFFCC, several field offices, and the RO itself. I deeply appreciate the direct and behind-thescenes
support I received from those many people. I especially appreciate the tremendous help
provided by Pete Gober and his office over the years.
Best wishes to all!