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Don’t Like the Endangered Species Act? Try to Weaken It by Gutting the Science

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The Endangered Species Act has one of the strongest scientific foundations of any environmental law in the United States. And with some predictability, some members of Congress try to tear down that foundation. This year is no different.

The Endangered Species Act is successful: 98 percent of species that have been listed as endangered or threatened survive today. And the law has helped the recovery of many of our nation’s iconic species, from bald eagles to grizzly bears.

Why? In part, because decisions on which species warrant protection are based solely on the best available scientific information. After a species is put on the endangered species list, other concerns (such as agriculture, hunting, recreation, or development) rightfully inform decisions about how to best enable a species’ recovery.

The current attacks
Yesterday, a House subcommittee passed an appropriations bill with several provisions that would weaken the Endangered Species Act by diluting the science that informs it (in addition to a slew of other anti-environmental provisions). All were introduced by Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID). Among the highlights:

This week, Representative Mike Simpson put forward several riders to an appropriations bill that would weaken the scientific foundation of the Endangered Species Act. Photo: US Congress

This week, Representative Mike Simpson put forward several riders to an appropriations bill that would weaken the scientific foundation of the Endangered Species Act. Photo: US Congress

The bill would prohibit researching endangered species on private property. Scientists need a full understanding of the range of a particular species to make accurate determinations regarding if and where it deserves protection.

The bill would prevent any new limits on the use of or access to federal land for fishing or hunting. The federal government owns and manages 650 million acres of land, and many imperiled species live on this land. Biologists who determined that hunting or fishing restrictions would help a species recover would be out of luck.

The bill would prohibit the listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The greater sage grouse has long been under political attacks. But determining which species merit protection is a scientific question, not a political one.

Other parts of the legislation would make implementation of the Endangered Species Act more difficult. For example, the bill would exempt grazing permits from environmental review, and require any land acquisition to receive congressional approval.

A history of political interference
Since I started at UCS nearly a decade ago, we’ve worked with scientists to educate members of Congress and their staff about the importance of keeping the Endangered Species Act grounded in science. While there have been many small skirmishes, a couple of bigger fights rise to the top of my mind.

Some members of Congress want to gut the Endangered Species Act entirely. In 2005, Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA) pushed legislation through the House of Representatives that would have prohibited scientists from considering an animal’s historical range, removed modeling as a tool for scientific analysis, and given political appointees the ability to set criteria for scientific data.

In response, more than five thousand scientists wrote a letter to the Senate outlining why the Endangered Species Act needs science to be successful, and urging the Senate to stop any legislation that would weaken it.  Emboldened, Former Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee prevented the Senate companion to Representative Pombo’s legislation from moving through his committee, effectively killing it.

The gray wolf has a long history of being caught up in politics--with actions by interests on all sides that undermine the use of science in the Endangered Species Act.

The gray wolf has a long history of being caught up in politics. Actions by interests with diverse viewpoints on wolf conservation have undermined the use of science in the Endangered Species Act. Photo: USFWS

Other members of Congress have beefs with individual species (former California Democratic Representative Joe Baca has gone after many). The gray wolf is one species that has been caught in Congress’s crosshairs for years. In February 2011, legislation was introduced that would have removed the wolf from the endangered list. It was the first time Congress had tried to “de-list” a particular species.

Knowing this would set a bad precedent, UCS helped organize a letter to the Senate from nearly 1,300 experts with biological expertise. “Objective scientific information and methods should be used in listing or delisting species, subspecies, and distinct population segments as endangered or threatened,” they wrote.

But then, a group of environmental organizations—who in this case were also willing to set the science aside—cut a deal with the Interior Department to de-list the wolf in Idaho and Montana, the states where elected officials were raising the biggest stink. A judge threw the agreement out, and eventually, the budget rider passed.

Last month, the FWS formally proposed de-listing the wolf entirely in the continental U.S. Some scientists and scientific organizations do not believe the proposal is supported by the best available science. Recently, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a lawsuit over the failure of the FWS to produce documents related to the wolf de-listing under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Endangered Species Act will continue to be subject to attacks from those who stand to benefit from its demise. It’s incumbent upon the scientific community to push back.

Posted in: Science and Democracy Tags: , , , , , , ,

About the author: Michael Halpern is an expert on political interference in science and solutions to reduce suppression, manipulation, and distortion of government science. See Michael's full bio.

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3 Responses

  1. Kevin Aubie says:

    This is not surprising. Right wingnuts have already succeeded in completely gutting 50 years of environmental law in Canada after cheating their way to an electoral majority.

    Through freedom of information requests, news orgs were actually able to obtain the letter sent from tar sands execs right to the PM stating exactly which laws they wanted scrapped such as the Species at Risk act, Navigable waters and fisheries acts, etc. All those acts were completely gutted within months.

    I consider right wingers to be both the dullards and enemies of modern society.

  2. Norman MacLeod says:

    I fully agree that we need to encourage, nay, demand, the use of best available science (BAS) that consists wholly of objective scientific information and methods. Such information should be devoid of individual or organizational advocacy. The scientific information upon which a decision to list a species under the ESA as threatened or endangered should be as complete and fully validated as technologically and procedurally possible.

    If the information for justifying and supporting a listing is lacking, and use of the precautionary principle is deemed warranted, the candidate species should remain on the candidate list until sufficient validated scientific information is available upon which to base a valid and legally defensible listing decision.

    Each candidate species should be considered for listing on its own merits. (Congress did not intend for more than one species to be considered for listing under one listing and one critical habitat designation rule-making process.)

    Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening now.

    In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) signed settlement agreements with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and WildEarth Guardians that would require USFWS to make listing decisions on all of the species on the candidate list prior to the end of 2018. Somehow the 250-some species that were on the candidate list at the time of signing mushroomed into 757 species.

    Congress did not provide significant additional levels of resources to USFWS to accomplish this overly ambitious goal. Since then, it has become increasingly apparent that the USFWS endangered species program has fallen into increasing disarray. Whether formally or informally, the Service has lowered standards for the science it considers qualified as BAS for justifying and supporting its listing decisions. Those decisions are now made more according to a calendared schedule, than according to the availability and completeness of the science driving those decisions.

    The White Bluffs bladderpod (Physaria douglasii subsp. tuplashensis) listing process is a case in point. It was bundled into a listing process with the Umtanum desert buckwheat. The buckwheat was a Listing Priority Number (LPN)2, the bladderpod was a LPN-9.

    There is some controversy over the plant’s taxonomic status. USFWS believes it is a distinct subspecies, although the Service did not perform DNA analysis to confirm their belief. In a recent newspaper article in Franklin County, Washington’s Tri-City Herald, a USFWS official stated that they do not have sufficient resources to perform DNA analysis on every species, and that they were unaware of any DNA analysis on the White Bluffs bladderpod.

    A combination of local government and stakeholders commissioned DNA analysis of the White Bluffs bladderpod with the University of Idaho’s Laboratory for Ecological, Evolutionary, and Conservation Genetics. The analysis was performed by Dr. Cort Anderson, Research Assistant Professor of Conservation Genetics.

    DNA from collected (under USFWS permit) specimens was compared to DNA from P. douglasii specimens collected from various sites in a four-state region. Analysis demonstrated no genetic deviation between the P. douglasii specimens and the White Bluffs bladderpod specimens.

    USFWS has spent more than $600,000 on this listing process to date. The DNA analysis reportedly cost $17,000.

    This week, USFWS announced that it is planning to spend about $3,000,000 on an experiment to remove 3,600 barred owls from two test sites to determine whether killing barred owls will help slow the decline of the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

    . . . And USFWS is claiming that it doesn’t have the resources to perform DNA analysis? Seems to me that it’s more like USFWS has a problem prioritizing the use of its resources than it is an actual shortage of resources.

    Which brings us to the proposed delisting of the gray wolf in most of the Lower 48 States except the Southwest gray wolf (Mexican wolf, Canis lupus baileyi) . . .

    The gray wolf recovery program is, like the spotted owl recovery program, very, very expensive. If were the proverbial fly on the wall, I suspect we’d find that USFWS is calculating that the wolf is doing OK, and that it will continue to do OK if management is turned over to the state fish and wildlife agencies, even if there’s some level of hunting and trapping going on.

    I think USFWS is attempting to shift resources from the wolf recovery program into the listing program in the hope that it will help them avoid totally breaking the settlement agreement they boxed themselves into.

    Of course, that’s just me . . . your mileage may vary.

    • Michael Halpern says:

      Hi Dr. MacLeod,

      Great points. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. I agree that resource allocation is too opaque. More transparency is needed, which could help bring more minds together to figure out how we can use what is available more efficiently.

      That said, finding enough resources to adequately deal with the listing and recovery processes is very challenging. Certainly another way to hamstring the Endangered Species Act is to fail to provide enough funding to carry it out. The FWS has a underfunded mandate, and as long as that is the case, the agency will need to continue to think creatively regarding which battles are most worth fighting.

      Before we get too bogged down in questions of funding or agency implementation, though, the majority of attempts by Congress to weaken the Endangered Species Act relate to its scope and structure. There are two forces in government that influence effective endangered species management and recovery: Congress and the agency. This blog post focuses (mostly) on the steps that Congress has taken or has attempted to take to weaken the law by reducing its reliance on science. The actions of Congress around the wolf attempted to set a precedent that listing decisions could be influenced by politics if the political situation was sufficiently unfavorable for the species.

      It could be that the environmental groups sought an agreement because they felt they saw the writing on the wall and wanted to preserve some protections for the wolf, and the USFWS had deprioritized wolf recovery in service to other species. I don’t know. In an ideal world, Congress would provide sufficient funding, listing decisions would be based on the best available science, recovery plans would be flexible enough to take into account human needs, and funds would be spent efficiently, with sufficient transparency to ensure accountability.

      Regardless, Endangered Species Act protections are still a vital part of preserving the natural heritage of this country, and protecting the biodiversity that continues to drive innovations in human health, even with an imperfect process.