Controversy erupts over Endangered Species Act

Congress and the Interior Department investigate whether the Bush administration undermined federal protections.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From the day it became law 34 years ago, the federal Endangered Species Act has been politically hot – a flash point of contention between defenders of nature and advocates of economic progress. Now, the ESA is embroiled in new controversy.

Two different government entities are investigating decisions by Bush administration officials related to species recovery. In one, the US Interior Department is reviewing the scientific integrity of decisions under the law made by a political appointee, who recently resigned under fire. At the same time, Congress is investigating evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney interfered with decisions involving water in California and Oregon that resulted in the killing of tens of thousands of Klamath River salmon, some of which were listed as "threatened" species.

Both episodes illustrate what critics say is the Bush administration's resistance to the law.

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During President Bush's time in the White House, the listing of endangered and threatened species has slowed down considerably. It's a fraction of the number his father made in four years (58 new listings compared with 231 by the senior Bush), and most of those were court-ordered.

New funding for protection of such species has been cut as well. As a result, 278 "candidate species" are waiting to join the list of 1,352 plant and animal species now listed as "endangered" or "threatened."

Scientists and activists see the ESA as the last chance for preventing extinction of dwindling plants and animals ranging from the obscure – the rock gnome lichen, for example – to the grizzly bear and other "charismatic megafauna."

But to developers, it can be a very costly impediment to business. And to farmers, ranchers, loggers, and others whose work is land-based, it can threaten a traditional way of life. Many fights over species protection have ended up in federal court.

But it is the political pressure on government scientists that is the current focus.

Following a critical report by the inspector general of the Interior Department in March, Julie MacDonald – the official in charge of fish and wildlife, including those listed under the ESA – resigned.

Fish and Wildlife Service employees complained that Ms. MacDonald had "bullied, insulted, and harassed the professional staff … to change documents and alter biological reporting," according to the report.

"We confirmed that MacDonald has been heavily involved with editing, commenting on, and reshaping the endangered species program's scientific reports from the field," the inspector general wrote, also noting that "she has no formal educational background in natural sciences, such as biology."

The Interior Department inspector general also found that MacDonald had "disclosed nonpublic information to private sector sources" – special interests that had a financial stake in species listing and protection – including the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm that specializes in property rights advocacy and litigation.

Government officials moved quickly to fix the political damage.

Last week, the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (the Interior Department agency in charge of endangered species programs) announced that eight decisions MacDonald had made under the ESA would be examined for scientific and legal discrepancies.

In a phone conference with reporters, Fish and Wildlife Service director H. Dale Hall called the episode "a blemish … on the scientific integrity" of the agency. "When I became director, I made scientific integrity my highest priority, and these reviews underscore our commitment to species conservation," Mr. Hall said.

Critics welcomed the action. But they want the internal review to include many more of some 200 species decisions that MacDonald had a hand in, such as those for the marbled murrelet (a shore bird), the bull trout, and the controversial northern spotted owl. Also, they say, the problem goes deeper.

"The real culprit here is not a renegade political appointee," says Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' (UCS) scientific integrity program. "The real culprit is a process where decisions are made behind closed doors."

In 2005, UCS surveyed about 450 Fish and Wildlife Service scientists. Two-thirds said they knew of cases where Interior Department political appointees had interfered with scientific reports and decisions, and 84 said they had been ordered to remove or change technical information from scientific documents.

Political pressure is alleged to have taken place during a summer drought in 2002 when Klamath River water was allowed to irrigate farmers' fields rather than provide adequate passage for salmon headed upstream to spawn as government scientists had recommended.

As reported in detail recently by The Washington Post, Vice President Cheney intervened in decisions involving a 10-year water plan for the Klamath River basin, siding with farmers and ranchers over environmental considerations. Courts later termed that plan "arbitrary and capricious and in violation of the Endangered Species Act."

As a result of the low water flows that summer, which make the water warmer and the fish more prone to disease, some 70,000 salmon died. Since then, fish runs have remained low, causing economic hardship for Indian tribes as well as commercial and sport-fishing businesses along the West Coast.

The House Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing next week to investigate "political influence … on agency science and decisionmaking." Cheney has been invited to testify, but he is not expected to attend the hearing.

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