Researcher cleared of misconduct charges levied by western environmentalists

Jan 8, 2010

Following a seven-month investigation, the University of Idaho announced Jan. 4 that Dr. Marie Bulgin of the Caine Veterinary Teaching Center in Caldwell, ID, will be allowed to resume her full duties as a teacher, researcher, and administrator. According to Jack McIvar, vice president of research for the university, the investigation, which centered on Bulgin’s 2009 testimony before the Idaho State Legislature regarding disease transmission between domestic sheep and wild bighorns, turned up no evidence of scientific misconduct. McIvar found that the investigation did not show in any way that Bulgin had engaged in "practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community."

The controversy surrounding the compatibility of these two species has been raging in Idaho for a number of years and Bulgin, who has been researching sheep in Idaho since 1977, has been involved throughout the debate’s history. During the 2009 legislative session, in an effort to better understand the issue, Idaho lawmakers asked Bulgin to speak about sheep research being conducted at the Caine Center. In the course of her testimony, Bulgin stated that there was no proof that bighorns died as a direct result of organisms contracted from contact with domestic sheep.

Following her statements, the Western Watersheds Project, an anti-grazing group based in Hailey, ID, accused her of scientific misconduct. To back up their claim, they produced a paper, written by Caine Center scientists in 1994, concluding that two bighorns sampled at the center had contracted deadly pasteurella bacteria as a result of exposure to domestic sheep. Western Watersheds contended that Bulgin had willfully ignored this information in her 2009 testimony and in earlier statements written to federal courts in 2007. Bulgin denied the accusation and claimed she had no knowledge of the paper’s existence. However, in June of last year, she did agree to temporarily step down from her administrative duties and abstain from conducting sheep-related research until the university could complete an investigation into the issue.

Although happy to be exonerated, Bulgin does have some concerns with regard to how the conflict played out. Particularly concerning is the apparent ability of special interest groups to apply political pressure to the science. This is a trend that, in her opinion, will have a negative effect on future scientist’s willingness to come forward with their data.

"I think it’s really unfortunate that they can do this," says Bulgin. "There are a lot of (natural resource) issues out there; the sheep are a small one as far as I am concerned. There are also grazing and water use issues to consider. It’s going to take good science to get to the bottom of these problems and if the scientists are afraid to come forward with their findings because they are going to get nailed to a cross, where are we?"

She adds, "We have scientists right here in this building that will be hesitant to come forward in the future. They’ve seen what happened to me and they don’t want the humiliation of being dragged through the press."

Despite her difficulty, Bulgin does admit that, given the chance to go back, she would change nothing. "I’m stubborn that way," she says.

Bulgin also points out that the press either misquoted or misunderstood her on several occasions, including in her statement to the legislature.

"What I have said is that I don’t believe there was any proof that disease transmission on the range has led to any bighorn die offs. What I was quoted as saying was that there had been no transmission on the range. Of course, there had been," said Bulgin.

She cites a study published by the Caine Center’s Dr. Alton Ward in 1993 in which three captured bighorns were found to be carrying organisms in common with domestic sheep.

"They captured them, cultured them, and let them go," says Bulgin. "There were no die offs; they didn’t take anything deadly back to their herds."

As part of her testimony last spring, Bulgin also detailed the findings resulting from a major bighorn die off in the Hell’s Canyon area in 1994. In that case, 97 bighorns were sampled and the samples compared to the nearest domestic sheep flock, which was 10 miles away. They were also compared to samples taken from three feral goats that had been living with the bighorn herd. No matches were made with bacteria taken from the domestic sheep, but three of the 97 bighorns were found to be carrying organisms in common with one of the goats.

"The forest service has two reviewers who still maintain that the 1994 die off was the result of feral goats," says Bulgin. "The other 94 bighorns died from seven or eight organisms that are common to bighorn populations. The comment that I was quoted on, the one the media pointed to as so ludicrous, was that it was the bighorn’s own bugs that were killing them. For the majority of those animals, it was absolutely true."

According to Bulgin, the paper Western Watersheds used to discredit her was likewise misrepresented.

"The paper that I supposedly sat on, I never knew about," she maintains. "I never knew about it because it was never published, and it was never published because it was rejected by the journal it was submitted to."

Now that she has seen the paper in question, she remains unconvinced of a clear link tying domestic exposure to the death of the two bighorns in that study, pointing instead to stress as the most likely cause of death. Of the two bighorns that died, one of them was a ewe that had been transplanted from Oregon to Nevada, subsequently turning up in a herd of Suffolk rams on private land. The ewe was taken to the Caine center in Caldwell and samples taken proved that she was carrying bacteria matching those found in the Suffolks. Though exposure to domestic sheep was listed as a possible cause of death, Bulgin disagrees, citing the animal’s panic as the actual reason.

"The ewe would throw herself against the fence until she fell down, and then she would get up and do it again," explains Bulgin. "After 10 days of this, she died; I don’t know that this proves anything."

The second bighorn to die was similarly stressed, and 10 other exposed bighorns involved in the study exhibited no symptoms at all.

Perhaps most damaging at a personal level, Bulgin has had to endure attacks on her integrity as a scientist. As a past president of the Idaho Woolgrowers and an advocate of the domestic sheep industry, she has been accused of bias on more than one occasion, an accusation that she hotly contests.

"All I did was review the literature and point out what was in it. I am a scientist and a veterinarian. All I’m doing is pointing out what’s obvious. There are those who want to believe so strongly that domestic sheep are to blame that they are willing to do or say anything to prove their point. But the proof just isn’t there yet," Bulgin explained. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent