REGIONAL—A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources veterinarian found herself the subject of an internal investigation within days of expressing “on-the-record” concerns about the inhumane treatment of moose calves during the first year of the DNR’s controversial study.
Erika Butler, who now works at a veterinary clinic in Fort Frances, Ontario, was forced out of the agency, officially for speeding while in a state vehicle. Yet Butler said she’s convinced her disagreements with study leader Glenn DelGuidice and DNR Wildlife Research Director Lou Cornicelli, were the real reasons behind her ouster.
Butler and the DNR signed a separation agreement on Oct. 7, 2013, about seven weeks following the completion of a months-long DNR investigation into a number of allegations against Butler regarding her use of a DNR vehicle. The investigation found substantial evidence that Butler had exceeded the speed limit while returning from a wildlife seminar at Camp Ripley on May 30, 2013. A fellow motorist followed Butler for over 25 miles along Hwy. 10 on the northwest side of the Twin Cities metro area, and video-recorded Butler in her vehicle for about ten miles. The DNR, in compliance with data privacy laws, was unable to identify the motorist who made the recording, and was unable to provide a copy of the investigation to the Timberjay, although the paper did obtain a copy through another source.
The Timberjay also reviewed nearly 200 emails and other related documents through a recent public information request undertaken for background on this story.
While Butler acknowledges she may have exceeded the speed limit, she denied other allegations raised in a complaint made by the motorist who recorded her driving, as well as an allegation raised by her supervisor Michelle Carstensen. The investigation into those allegations proved inconclusive.
Butler said supervisors were aware that she sometimes failed to pay enough attention to her speed, but had never made an issue of it before, other than to ask her to slow down. She said policies related to the use of state vehicles are widely violated and inconsistently enforced within the DNR, but are used on occasion to force out employees who present other problems for the agency.
“They knew if they wanted to get me, that would be the way,” she said.
Butler had been part of the team of DNR wildlife officials who undertook the study of moose calf mortality, beginning two years ago. As the veterinarian assigned to the project, Butler said assuring the health and humane treatment of the calves was part of her responsibility, and it’s one she raised during meetings and in emails well in advance of the capture and radio-collaring of nearly 50 moose calves during May 2013.
Differences over how to handle the calves, contingency plans in case calves were abandoned, and other issues, had deeply strained relations among members of the moose team well ahead of the capture effort.
Butler acknowledges that she’s not always diplomatic when making a point, and that may have contributed to the situation. Yet Butler said others on the team had to “tiptoe” around study leader DelGuidice, who she described as volatile at times.
In a Feb. 21, 2013, email, DelGuidice asked Carstensen and Butler for a meeting “to see if we can reconcile some of our differences. This has been building for months, and obviously, can’t get much worse…”
In an apparent attempt to intercede, Cornicelli sought to set up a form of mediation to help the team overcome its differences, although it’s unclear if it ever took place. Cornicelli said data privacy laws prevent him from commenting on personnel matters. Cornicelli said he also instructed DelGuidice not to respond to similar questions posed by the Timberjay.
As with most research involving wildlife, DNR officials were well aware that the process of capturing, collaring, and collecting hair and blood samples posed risks, most critically to the calves themselves. Indeed, in the wake of the severe winter that ended in May 2013, which left many adult moose in a weakened condition, the DNR’s moose team knew the risk of abandonment could be relatively high.
Butler had been warning for months that abandonment was a real risk unless researchers took special care to prevent it, including limiting the time that the calf “work-up” team remained in the vicinity of the young animals.
In a March 20, 2013, email to a Minnesota Zoo veterinarian who was following the moose project, Butler outlined her concerns. “In my conversations with biologists who have done this work before they have indicated that a calf work-up that takes longer than 1-2 minutes greatly increases the chance of abandonment. Additionally, there is a belief that cows in poor body condition (which ours are) are far more likely to abandon than cows in good body condition.”
Butler said she regularly offered similar recommendations to Cornicelli as well as study leader DelGuidice. Yet, rather than heed Butler’s advice, the team’s initial handling protocol allowed for up to six minutes for handling of calves. Butler said she communicated her concerns about the protocol, especially after it became clear that the mother moose “were taking off from the capture site rather than protecting their calves.”
For the most part, DNR officials have described the level of calf abandonments as a surprise. “There’s no doubt it caught the team off guard,” said DNR spokesperson Chris Niskanen. “Their understanding from talking with other researchers was that the dams [moose cows] would be highly protective and could pose some risk to researchers,” Niskanen said. “This just wasn’t on their radar.”
Yet the moose team’s capture and handling protocol demonstrates that researchers were aware that abandonment was a significant risk. A special note within the document, dated April 27, 2013, states: “Due to the severity of this past winter and the poor condition of many adult cows at capture and several during mortality investigations, the risk of abandonment may be relatively high.”
Butler had grown uneasy about the potential for abandonment after discussing the issue with colleagues who had worked on a similar moose calf study in Alaska. The Alaska study, which was designed for a single year, did not go as well as planned, according to Thomas McDonough, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Fish and Game Department. McDonough said 14 percent of the moose calves in the Alaska study were abandoned by their mothers as a result of capture, a rate that he called “unacceptable.”
Butler said sharply limiting handling times seemed to help reduce the level of abandonment, but the Alaska researchers opted, in the end, to explore different methods entirely in order to eliminate the need to capture calves at all.
“Unless we conducted the study differently, to reduce this level of abandonment, this level of capture-related mortality would not or should not be allowed under known Animal Care and Use standards,” said McDonough. “In other words, this type of study has shown in many areas to have an unacceptable level of capture-related mortality and should not be an accepted method of study according to IACUC protocols.”
The IACUC is the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which provides professional and ethical guidelines for wildlife researchers.
From the beginning of the 2013 capture effort in Minnesota, abandonments became an issue. The team began calf captures on May 7, and within three days, Butler had completed necropsies on two abandoned calves. Another abandoned calf was on her exam table three days after that, and as the collaring effort ramped up later in the month, she soon had several more to examine. By May 21, the team had seven dead calves, and in every case the necropsy indicated likely abandonment.
Emails from the time show members of the moose team were clearly exasperated by the situation.
In a May 21, 2013, email, Carstensen informs Butler of the situation. “FYI… 5 more today, as part of the 9 abandoned. Now it looks like 3 new ones…whoa!”
Butler responded shortly after: “Just heard from Jeanna. Her and Bill think they’re abandoned…I’m calling Lou. This is b.s.”
For Butler, the situation was maddening, particularly since she felt DelGuidice had ignored her entreaties about the need to limit calf-handling time to reduce the likelihood of abandonment.
Yet Niskanen notes that teams of people have discussions all the time, and that differences of opinion are inevitable in a group environment. “Sometimes a team makes decisions that are right, and sometimes they are wrong.” Often, he said, it’s difficult to determine when the right call is being made, until after events play out.
And Niskanen said wildlife research is always a balancing act between the value of the research to wildlife managers and the impact on individual animals. In the case of moose, he said, with the entire population seemingly at risk, it is important to understand the reasons behind the population decline. He said the DNR maintains its focus, in general, on benefits to wildlife populations as a whole, rather than on individuals. “Even so,” he said, “no researcher goes into something like this expecting this to happen.”
While a 14 percent abandonment rate was deemed unacceptable to researchers in Alaska, nearly one-in-five (or 18.4 percent) of moose cows abandoned their calves following capture in the first year of the Minnesota study.
And abandonments grew worse in the second year, with cows abandoning seven of the first 12 calves captured, a situation that prompted DelGuidice to consider ending the study. The high rate of abandonment came despite DelGuidice’s decision to end the use of helicopters for the capture process. But DelGuidice was still allowing the capture team to hold the calves for as long as four minutes, something Butler (who, by then, was no longer with the DNR) had repeatedly warned against.
In the end, after initially losing more than 50 percent of calves to abandonment in 2014, DelGuidice revised his capture protocol, limiting the time of capture to under a minute. The two-person capture team approached calves wearing scent block, attached collars, and left immediately. It was an approach similar to that recommended by Butler from early on in the study. After switching to the new method, the moose team successfully collared 13 more calves, without a single abandonment.
Yet the experience in Alaska raises other concerns about the Minnesota study, besides abandonments. McDonough also found that captured and collared moose calves were less likely to survive their first 60-90 days of life than calves that didn’t go through that experience. That, in itself, raises questions about the scientific validity of any findings obtained from such a study, since the study methods themselves may be biasing the results.
According to Tom Lohuis, who supervised McDonough’s study for Alaska Fish and Game, the disparity in long-term survival was a surprise, particularly since the difference in the long-term survival rate was close to 30 percent. “And it was a pretty robust data set,” said Lohuis.
While McDonough and fellow researchers considered additional research to better understand the factors behind that discrepancy, they eventually decided not to pursue the question. “Thomas [McDonough] simply decided he didn’t want to kill that many moose calves,” said Lohuis.
Such outcomes have Alaska officials experimenting with alternative study methods, such as putting camera collars on the moose cows in their study that record pictures throughout the calving season. “Hopefully this is a method that will allow researchers to detect calf mortality without having to handle the calves,” said McDonough.
Meanwhile, here in Minnesota, DNR officials plan to begin calf captures next month using the quick, “collar-and-go” protocol developed at the end of the 2014 capture season. Niskanen said the Alaskan experience with video cameras is intriguing and may be a technology to consider in future research.
With the risk of abandonment well known to DNR researchers, Butler argued repeatedly for crafting a workable contingency plan to ensure humane solutions for abandoned calves.
On May 1, 2013, less than a week before captures were set to begin, Butler emailed DelGuidice to reiterate her concerns. “As we discussed this morning, I feel it is really important that there is a plan in place to deal with abandoned calves (as a result of capture), whether it be to bring them to the zoo or euthanize them. I see this as no different than a downer animal after capture and I believe that it is our responsibility to deal with them rather than leave them out there.”
As part of a contingency plan to deal with any abandoned calves, Minnesota Zoo officials had indicated early on that the zoo would be interested in obtaining at least a couple female calves if the capture led to their abandonment. The fate of any abandoned male calves was less certain.
Niskanen agrees that a contingency plan should have been in place the first year. “That was a mistake,” he said. “I think if we could have a do-over, we would do that one over.”
At the time, said Niskanen, the researchers were primarily focused on trying to discern a pattern to the abandonments, in hopes of finding modifications that could reduce or eliminate the problem. “This was of great concern to them,” he said. “Researchers don’t want to put their subjects in harm’s way.”
Niskanen noted that a contingency plan was in place in 2014, and will be again when calf captures get underway next month. “The goal is to get one more year of research,” he said. “But if the abandonment trend continues, we’re going to suspend the project.”
Yet, while the Minnesota Zoo did accept five abandoned moose calves in 2014, only one of the calves ever made it out of the woods alive during the study’s first year, and it died in a DNR vehicle shortly after it was recovered.
While Butler had argued for a contingency plan, she said she met opposition from Cornicelli, among others. In one meeting, Butler said Cornicelli responded to her concerns by stating that “we won’t have to worry about it, the wolves will get them in no time.”
Cornicelli said he doesn’t recall making that statement, but acknowledged that he did suggest that it was a possibility that the calves would succumb to predation if separated from their mothers.
Yet, for most of the abandoned calves in 2013, starvation, not wolf attack, was their eventual fate. Butler, who had the unenviable task of analyzing the remains of the dead calves, found it a particularly upsetting time. In one necropsy report after another, Butler found little physically wrong with the newborn moose, except for empty bellies and low blood sugar. “Suggestive of hypoglycemia,” was the conclusion in virtually every report written that May. “That essentially means they starved to death,” said Butler.
And Butler raised concerns that DNR researchers were being too slow to recover the dead moose calves, noting that some of the carcasses arrived at her lab with maggots already growing on them. She noted that the point of the radio-collaring was to allow DNR staff to recover dead calves immediately to, hopefully, ascertain the cause of death. She said the delays in recovering the dead animals made her job of determining the cause of death that much harder.
By May 23, 2013, after having drafted nine reports concluding starvation as the cause of death, Butler put her growing concerns on the record. “I have looked at the first nine diagnostic reports and all mortalities appear to be due to abandonment,” Butler wrote in an email to DNR Director of Wildlife Research Lou Cornicelli and her supervisor Carstensen. “I realize that we were all aware that there was a potential for abandonment, and that is not really my primary concern. My biggest issue with this is that they were all left out there to essentially starve or die of exposure. I had addressed this concern with Glenn prior to captures and he agreed that it was not humane to leave them out there alive when they are clearly abandoned.”
Barely a week after sending her concerns to her DNR supervisors, Butler was under investigation.
prompted by video
Butler said she was stunned by the allegations that surfaced shortly after her return from a three-day wildlife conference at Camp Ripley at the end of May 2013. A DNR investigator, Colleen Cooley Schmitz informed her that she had been video-recorded by a motorist while returning from Camp Ripley to the Carlos Avery Reserve, where she was stationed.
According to the investigator, the other driver had noticed Butler driving recklessly along Hwy. 10 near Big Lake, and began following her, while recording her driving on her phone. The motorist alleged that Butler had reached speeds of 85-miles-per-hour in a 65-mile-per-hour zone, and was driving aggressively by swerving, passing recklessly, and tailgating while traveling in a DNR pickup.
Butler concedes the video provides evidence that she had exceeded the speed limit, but the recording was less conclusive on the motorist’s other allegations. “The video… does not capture Butler passing other drivers and cutting them off, driving on the shoulder, or abruptly switching lanes,” stated the report issued by Schmitz on Aug. 13, 2013. Schmitz indicated that the video did appear to show Butler tailgating at one point, but Butler argued the video lacked the depth perception necessary to draw such a conclusion and the investigation draws no final conclusion on the allegations.
At the same time, however, Butler’s supervisor, Michelle Carstensen, made no effort to defend Butler to the investigator. She even suggested to the investigator that Butler may have taken the truck to her boyfriend’s house in Rush City the weekend prior to the wildlife conference, although Carstensen had no knowledge that Butler might have actually done so. Carstensen offered the allegation as a way to account for what the investigator described as a 76-mile discrepancy in the travel log of the truck Butler had taken to the wildlife conference.
Butler vehemently denied that she had used the truck for personal business. She said she had been at a work-related conference in Tennessee the week before the Camp Ripley conference and didn’t get back to Minnesota until 2 a.m. Saturday morning due to a flight delay. “I spent most of Saturday catching up on sleep and doing laundry that had built up over the week of my trip,” she said. Butler, who was scheduled to give a major presentation at the wildlife conference at Camp Ripley, said she spent the rest of the weekend working at home on her talk.
In the end, the investigator acknowledged that Butler had been able to account for the vast majority of the missing mileage. While the mileage log initially pointed to 76 miles of driving that Butler couldn’t account for, further investigation by Schmitz whittled the discrepancy down to 19.75 miles. Butler said minor inaccuracies in the truck logs were commonplace at the DNR and could have any number of innocent explanations.
Butler said the comments and allegation made by Carstensen proved the biggest shock of the entire investigation. “This might be what hurt me the most,” said Butler. “We had been friends for so long (well before she was my supervisor) and while she acted as my supervisor she never led me to believe that my position was in jeopardy [over this].”
At the conclusion of the investigation, DNR officials gave Butler a six-page letter outlining a long list of purported violations by Butler, and asked her to sign it. Butler, who said many of the allegations were untrue, refused.
While Butler could have fought to keep her job, she decided in the end it wasn’t worth the trouble. She ultimately agreed to a layoff, which allowed her to receive her accrued sick pay and unemployment while she searched for a new job. Today, she works at the Nor-West Animal Clinic, in Fort Frances.
Given her first-hand look at the DNR’s moose calf research, Butler said she no longer supports the study, at least in its current design—and she’s unhappy that top DNR officials have not sought an appropriate accounting for the calf losses, or what she sees as animal cruelty perpetrated by DelGuidice. “It’s time to throw in the towel on this study,” she stated last month in an online posting on the website Change.org.
Butler said she’d like to see some level of accountability for the errors made by those who have led the moose calf study. She notes that she was required to justify her own work in 2013, when the adult moose study experienced a far less dramatic 3.6 percent mortality rate as a result of capture. She said DelGuidice had approached top DNR officials, blaming the mortalities on Butler’s tranquilizer dosing calculations. At the time, DelGuidice had described the mortality rate as “much too high.”
Butler, who responded to the criticism by providing supervisors with a detailed explanation of her dosing decisions, said she believes decisions made by DelGuidice and Cornicelli in regards to the moose calf study should be scrutinized in a similar manner. “To the best of my knowledge, they were not,” she said.
Cornicelli defended DelGuidice, who he said has a “deep compassion and respect” for the animals he studies. “He is highly regarded by his peers and carries both a national and international reputation as a leading research scientist in this field,” said Cornicelli. “Glenn is not only active in the research community but also mentors graduate students and participates in a wide array of outreach and scholarly activities.”
While Butler contends that her ouster from the DNR was related to her comments regarding the moose calf study, DNR officials say they can’t comment legally. But Cornicelli suggested that disagreements over methods aren’t cause for dismissal. “In any team environment, we encourage intellectual debate and discourse,” said Cornicelli. “In the end, it often results in a better outcome.”
As for the value of the study, Cornicelli said it’s too early to tell. “Field wildlife research is a slow, thoughtful, and often complicated process. I haven’t reached any conclusions,” he said.
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