The Environment

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  Fish & Wildlife Reopens Endangered Species ListingsJuly 31, 2007 12:15 Environmentalists declared a pyrrhic victory last week when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would revisit eight cases of Endangered Species Act listing decisions in light of evidence that disgraced former Interior Department official Julie MacDonald exerted “inappropriate influence” over the science behind them.

MacDonald served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Wildlife and Parks from 2002 until last May, when she stepped down after an internal review found that she had violated federal rules by giving government documents to industry lobbyists. A political appointee with no relevant scientific background, MacDonald stands accused of bullying scientists and personally rewriting scientific documents to prevent the protection of imperiled species.

But environmentalists contend that the eight cases under review are just a few of the instances in which sound science was overruled in favor of the Bush administration’s political line. Upwards of 200 species and habitat rulings crossed MacDonald’s desk during her five years at the Interior Department.

Francesca Grifo of the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists questions the validity of the decision-making process on up to two dozen endangered species listing cases made while MacDonald was in office. She cites the case of the bull trout, in which an economic analysis was distorted and censored, and that of the marbled murrelet, when officials overruled the recommendations of Fish and Wildlife scientists. Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity, another leading nonprofit on endangered species issues, calls last year’s decision to reduce habitat for the endangered red-legged frog a “giveaway to the development industry” and considers the new review announcement too little too late.

“While we welcome revisiting decisions where political interference has been documented, the list of species under consideration is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive,” says Grifo. “The Interior Department should engage in a systematic review of all Bush Administration decisions—not just those where interference has been exposed—to ensure that the science behind those decisions was not altered or distorted.”

For its part, the Fish and Wildlife Service has not ruled out looking into more decisions if new evidence comes to light about tampering with science. “We have acted to correct problems,” says Dale Hall, the agency’s director. “Should our reviews indicate that additional corrective actions are necessary, we will take appropriate action as quickly as we can.”
  Us Environment Chief Draws Fire On Global WarmingJuly 28, 2007 23:59 The Bush administration's environment chief drew fire on Thursday from Democratic senators for delaying a decision on whether to let California regulate global warming emissions from cars and light trucks.

Stephen Johnson, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has said the government will decide this question by year's end, two years after California's first request to set state air quality standards stricter than national rules.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who heads the Environment and Public Works Committee, told Johnson at a hearing she found the delay incomprehensible.

"I fail to understand why it should take the agency until December, a total of two years, to decide this waiver request. In 30 years, EPA has granted over 50 waiver requests and has never denied one. ... Deciding this issue should not take so long," Boxer said.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, accused Johnson of "foot-dragging," and added, "The environment cannot wait any longer."

California, the most populous U.S. state, has passed a law requiring that cars and light trucks cut climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide, by 18 percent by 2020.

In December 2005, California asked EPA for permission -- known as a waiver -- to implement these state air quality requirements that are stricter than the national standard. If the waiver is granted, 12 other states that have passed similar requirements would be free to put those into practice, too. Continued...
  Did Cheney Interfere With Endangered Species Act?July 28, 2007 23:53 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.

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 non-public 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.

  Judge: Science On Coho IgnoredJuly 17, 2007 14:41 It seemed like a rare good-news story for Northwest salmon: a Democratic governor rallies industry to help a troubled species, a supportive Republican White House hands the reins to the state, and happily, salmon numbers bounce back.

The only problem: A federal judge concluded Friday that the story of Oregon coast coho was based on smoke and mirrors. The only evidence things are looking up for the salmon was a faulty analysis by Oregon officials that federal scientists said "does not meet the red face test," the judge said.

Although federal biologists warned that Oregon's analysis had serious flaws, the Bush administration used that analysis to drop Endangered Species Act protections for the coho, leaving the state in charge, U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart concluded.

Stewart found that the Bush administration's decision was illegal because it ignored the best available science about what's really happening to coho -- which is not as rosy as Oregon suggested.

Coho numbers swing widely from year to year, and last year fell to their lowest level since 2000, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Many biologists believe the fish surged briefly thanks to a few years of unusually good ocean conditions.

Stewart's findings came in the form of a recommendation, which the state and federal governments can object to and which must still be approved by a higher judge. Higher judges typically go along with such recommendations, though.
  Judge: Federal Agency Must Catch Up On Endangered Species ReviewsJuly 16, 2007 11:18 A federal judge is giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service three years to catch up on a backlog of endangered and threatened species status reviews that Florida builders claim has caused unfair construction delays and inflated housing prices.
In his Tuesday ruling, U.S. District Judge John Antoon II dismissed the agency's defense that a lack of money and resources make it impossible to comply with a congressional mandate to review the status of endangered and threatened species every five years. Antoon said the agency "should take up such constraints with Congress rather than let mandatory deadlines expire with inaction."

But the judge also rejected the Florida Builders Association's demand that the backlogged reviews be completed in one year as "unrealistic, if not impossible." Antoon settled instead on the agency promise to review 89 plant and animal species on the list before Sept. 10, 2010.

"We would have preferred an expedited schedule, but the fact the reviews are going to be done is what's most important," said Steven Gieseler, an attorney for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, who represented the builders in the suit.

The Sacramento, Calif.-based foundation contends regulators held property owners to tough standards required by the Endangered Species Act, but were lax in complying with their own legal obligations.
  Too Many Species Not SafeJuly 16, 2007 10:43 When the bald eagle officially flew off the list of endangered species during a ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial last month, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne vowed: "We will work to ensure that the eagle never again needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act." What Mr. Kempthorne neglected to mention is that a growing number of species in need of those protections aren't getting them.

The Bush administration has made fewer additions to the list of endangered species than any administration since the law was enacted in 1973, according to a story published in the Los Angeles Times. Since 2001, 58 species have been added to the list; all but four listings were the result of lawsuits brought by environmental groups.

At the same time, 15 species have been removed from the endangered list by this administration - more than any other.

Meanwhile, the number of unlisted species nearing extinction has grown to 279, according to government scientists. Yet getting on the list is no guarantee of absolute protection. Of the 1,326 species considered endangered, about 200 linger at the point of no return, according to the Times.

Budget cuts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are part of the problem. Staffing for the agency's endangered species program is experiencing a 30 percent vacancy rate; the agency's top post has been empty for more than a year, the newspaper said.

In the past seven years, funding for the kinds of efforts that that saved the bald eagle - reintroducing breeding pairs, guarding nests and acquiring land - has been slashed by 15 percent in real dollars. The administration's proposed budget for fiscal year 2008 calls for another 29 percent cutback.
  300 Species Wait For ListingJuly 11, 2007 10:47 The bald eagle may have dropped off the roster of species protected by the Endangered Species List, but hundreds of additional plant, fish and animal species await protection.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Threatened and Endangered Species System, 278 species are currently "candidates for listing" under the Endangered Species Act. This number does not, apparently, yet include the 10 penguin species announced earlier this week as being considered for protection, nor does it include the hundreds of additional species which haven't even made it that far in the process.

According to a report from The Washington Post, "The Bush administration has made far fewer additions to the endangered species list than its two predecessors. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that President Bush has added 60 species, compared with about 550 by President Bill Clinton and 256 by President George H.W. Bush."

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reports that Fish and Wildlife has "a 30% vacancy rate in the program's staff" and notes that the top position for endangered species "has been left unfilled for more than a year." Budget cuts by the Bush Administration are to blame for the staff vacancies and the slow speed in protecting additional species.

It's obvious that the Fish and Wildlife Service is woefully underfunded. Let's hope the next administration corrects the current one's mistakes.

  The Eagle Soars, AgainJuly 01, 2007 09:06 For all of the good feelings about the removal of the American bald eagle from the endangered-species list, one senses a twinge of uncertainty. As if an environmental win is a bad thing, diverting attention from helping other critters.

The effect ought to be quite the opposite. After 40 years of purposeful effort by layers of government, committed property owners and vigilant volunteers, the country can celebrate a major victory. Nothing sustains enthusiasm like success, even if the word is as numbing as delisting.

Outside of Alaska in 1963, the count of bald eagles was down to 400 nesting pairs. A 1940 federal law had stopped the wholesale slaughter of the nation's symbol, but not enough to ward off catastrophe.

In 1967, the eagle was protected under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and later under the Endangered Species Act. Key among all the actions was the federal ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972. Exposure to the pesticide caused thin-shelled eggs that did not survive to hatch.

Each step of the way helped lay the foundation for cooperative action by federal and state governments and the creation of a broader environmental ethic.

Those efforts produced incremental results. In 1995, the ESA prognosis for the eagle population improved from endangered to threatened. In 1999, President Clinton proposed the eagle be removed from the list entirely. Years of evaluation followed.

Finally, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne could stand Thursday on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial to note that "10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles far surpasses the recovery goal of 3,900 nesting pairs."