High-level Bush administration officials have stripped protections for 55 endangered species and 8.7 million acres of land.
The Center for Biological Diversity has filed simultaneous lawsuits to protect six endangered species ranging over hundreds of thousands of acres from Montana to Alabama. The suits are the first phase of a national campaign to challenge political interference by the Bush administration.
A legally required “notice of intent to sue” over the 55 species was filed in August.
The lawsuits challenge the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal to list the Montana fluvial arctic grayling and Mexican garter snake as endangered species, its elimination of 109,382 acres of protected critical habitat from the Santa Ana sucker, loach minnow, and spikedace, and its refusal to provide any critical habitat at all for the Mississippi gopher frog.
“These are some of the most endangered species in the United States,” said Michael Senatore, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s outrageous that federal scientists were blocked from protecting them by political appointees in Washington, DC.”
“This wave of lawsuits is different – and what makes them so different is that the agency itself and its inspector general have provided a lot of compelling evidence of political interference with the proper functioning of the act,” said JB Ruhl, a law professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee and an expert on the Endangered Species Act (ESA, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists had issued decisions to list the Montana fluvial arctic grayling and garter snake as endangered species, but those decisions were reversed by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald and other high ranking officials.
MacDonald also slashed 75,408 acres from a proposal by Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to protect 143,680 acres of critical habitat for the loach minnow; 18,560 acres from a proposal to protect 60,144 acres for the spikedace, and 15,414 acres from a proposal to protect 23,719 acres for the Santa Ana sucker.
Following a scathing report by the Department of the Interior inspector general documenting systematic abuse and overruling of federal scientists, MacDonald resigned her post in early 2007.
To quell the scandal, the Department of the Interior and the US Fish and Wildlife Service pledged to review eight decisions illegally reversed by MacDonald. This cynical effort at damage control flamed the controversy, however, because MacDonald is implicated in more than 100 cases of overruling science.
In response to a congressional request, the Government Accountability Office is currently investigating additional instances of science manipulation by MacDonald.
“The depth of corruption within the Department of the Interior goes way beyond Julie MacDonald and eight decisions,” said Senatore. “It impacts hundreds of endangered species and millions of acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat.”
Montana fluvial arctic grayling. The Montana fluvial arctic grayling was once widely distributed throughout the upper Missouri River drainage above Great Falls, Montana. It has been reduced to a single population in the upper Big Hole River in southwestern Montana. Having already been extirpated from 95 per cent of its range, it continues to be threatened by water withdrawals, livestock grazing, nonnative species, and global warming.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the grayling warranted Endangered Species Act listing in 1994. In 2004, the agency elevated the species’ priority number from a 9 to a 3 because it was judged to be at imminent risk of extinction.
In 2006, agency scientists prepared a draft decision to list the grayling as endangered calling the species’ status “unequivocal.” Internal agency memos indicate that MacDonald then intervened and the decision was reversed by “the highest levels of management.” The final decision to withhold protection was issued on April 24, 2007.
Mexican garter snake. Dependent on the dwindling rivers and streams of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, the Mexican garter snake has been extirpated from 85-90 per cent of its US range. The decline of the Mexican garter snake is closely linked to the deteriorating quality of streamside habitats, the disappearance of native frogs and native fishes, and the rampant introduction and spread of nonnative species such as bullfrogs, crayfish, sunfish, and bass.
US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists concluded that the snake is endangered. Internal agency documents state that MacDonald “was involved in changes to drafts of the finding and that the determination was changed to being not warranted.” The final decision to deny protection was issued on September 26, 2006.
Spikedace and loach minnow. These southwestern fish were once common throughout the Verde, Salt, San Pedro, Gila, and other rivers of Arizona and New Mexico. Their numbers and range have been drastically reduced by habitat destruction and the introduction of nonnative species. Both were listed as “threatened” species in 1986, but continued to decline.
In response, the US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists declared that they should be upgraded to “endangered” status in 1994, and in 2000 designated 143,680 acres of critical habitat for the loach minnow and 129,120 acres for the spikedace. On March 21, 2007, the agency slashed the spikedace critical habitat back to 41,584 acres and the loach minnow habitat back to 68,272 acres.
Internal agency documents state that MacDonald “made a policy decision to define occupied habitat for the two fish as occupied within the previous ten years, which reduced the area or critical habitat that was proposed and eventually designated.”
Santa Ana sucker. This southern California fish has been extirpated from 75 per cent of its historic range. It was listed as a threatened species in 2000 and in 2004, Fish and Wildlife Service scientists proposed the designation of 23,719 acres of critical habitat to protect it. They were overruled by Assistant Secretary of Interior Craig Manson and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Randal Bowman.
The final decision published on January 1, 2005 slashed 15,414 acres from a proposal leaving just 8,305 acres of protected habitat. In internal agency documents, agency staff complained that the decision made no sense and warned of “how difficult this one will be when it comes to straight-facing it with the public and the press.”
Mississippi gopher frog. The Mississippi gopher frog formerly occurred in hundreds of ponds along in the Coastal Plain west of Mobile Bay from Alabama to Mississippi and Louisiana.
It has been reduced to just three populations in Mississippi: Glen’s Pond, McCoy’s Pond (50 miles to the east) and Mike’s Pond (20 miles to the west). Under court order, the Bush administration listed it as endangered in 2001, but has failed to develop a recovery plan or to designate critical habitat areas for it. The largest remaining population (Glen’s Pond) is threatened by plans for a massive housing development several hundred feet from the shoreline.