January 10, 2010 in City

Researcher cleared in testimony furor

But UI addresses her ties to sheep industry
John Miller Associated Press

BOISE – The University of Idaho said Monday it found no evidence that a sheep researcher committed scientific misconduct when she told a federal court and the Idaho Legislature there was no proof wild bighorns die after catching lung diseases from domestic sheep.

Marie Bulgin can resume teaching, research and other duties at the UI’s Caine Veterinary Teaching and Research Center in Caldwell, the Moscow-based school said as it concluded its seven-month investigation.

Bulgin, a former president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, must abide by a plan to address possible conflicts of interest over her advocacy for the sheep industry. Details of that plan weren’t released.

In June, she was removed from some duties after environmentalists produced documents showing other Caine Center scientists in 1994 concluded two bighorns they examined had contracted deadly lung diseases from domestic sheep while on the range.

Bulgin maintained she wasn’t aware of the 1994 studies when she testified to the contrary in the courts in 2007 and to lawmakers in 2009. Environmentalists and wildlife biologists are skeptical, in part because Bulgin’s daughter worked on the studies as a Caine Center employee.

Jack McIver, UI’s vice president of research, found no evidence from Bulgin’s scientific research or testimony that she’d engaged in “practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community.”

His review didn’t include interviews with Bulgin, other Caine Center staffers or Bulgin’s daughter on the question of whether she knew of the 1994 studies. That would have exceeded his probe’s scope, McIver said.

“It was simply a question of what is the evidence out there, and what were the statements that she’d made,” McIver said. “Misconduct does not ask about whether you know about everything.”

Bighorn die-offs have reduced Idaho’s wild herds by half since 1990 to about 3,500 animals. What’s behind the epidemics is at the heart of a clash among wildlife advocates, land managers and sheep ranchers in Idaho trying to protect their businesses.

The Payette National Forest, north of Boise, is considering shuttering 61 percent of its grazing allotments. Meanwhile, a U.S. District judge last fall closed another area along the Salmon River to grazing after concluding that leaving it open could endanger bighorns there.

Bulgin said she was pleased the UI’s investigation concluded in her favor. But she remains at odds with many bighorn biologists, contending they “cherry-pick” from research without applying the scientific method to their own studies.

Bulgin said that she remained unconvinced that bighorns die after encountering domestic sheep, even after reviewing the 1994 studies at her lab. Other factors, including stress, are more likely culprits, she said.

“I’m saying we don’t have solid proof. When we’re trying to kick people … off the range, we ought to think twice,” she said.

Jon Marvel, director of the Western Watersheds Project, a Hailey-based group aiming to end public-land grazing in the Rocky Mountains, said he was disappointed with the investigation’s outcome and that it fell short of determining whether Bulgin’s interests in promoting Idaho’s sheep industry led to inappropriate testimony in court and to legislators.

“I think this is a whitewash,” Marvel said. “People involved with agriculture in Idaho at the university level are exempt from scrutiny.”

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