1,399 Endangered Species Latest Casualty as David Bernhardt’s Siege on Science Continues at Interior Department

March 27, 2019 | 10:16 am
Photo: USFWS/Flickr
Jacob Carter
Research Director

On Thursday, March 28, the Senate will hold a hearing to advance David Bernhardt’s nomination for Secretary of the Interior. This is not good news for the Department of the Interior, its federal scientists and their work, or the people, public lands, and endangered species that are directly affected by the agency’s decisions.

Over the past two years, Bernhardt has played a prominent role in sidelining science in policy decisions at the Department of the Interior (DOI), first as assistant Interior Secretary and then as acting secretary following Zinke’s resignation in December. We documented these attacks on science in our December report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, and continue to monitor other anti-science activities that have taken place under Bernhardt’s watch.

The Senate should do its due diligence to ensure that Bernhardt is held accountable for these attacks on science, including at Thursday’s hearing. The American people deserve better than what Bernhardt has demonstrated so far as a DOI leader: a failure to address climate change, diminishment of public lands, silenced federal scientists, and further losses of threatened and endangered species across the country.

How egregious are Bernhardt’s attacks on science? Here are three that stand out, including one that just came to light.

Bernhardt puts more than 1,200 endangered species at risk

On Wednesday, March 26, the New York Times reported that Bernhardt suppressed a scientific report on risks to endangered species. Documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request provided evidence that Bernhardt’s decision to block the release of a report documenting the threats of three pesticides to endangered species was heavily influenced by the industries who produce those pesticides.

The Cape Sable seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis) sits peacefully among prairie grasses in this photo. The bird species is highly sensitive to indirect spread of pesticides such as chlorpyrifos – scientists say that the species population is in jeopardy. Photo: Brandon Trentler/Flickr

For the report, scientists at the DOI’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) investigated the risks from three pesticides: chlorpyrifos, malathion, and diazinon. The scientists found that two of the pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos, were so toxic that they jeopardized the existence of more than 1,200 endangered species. Currently, 1,663 species are listed as threatened or endangered meaning that these two pesticides alone could be a major culprit behind the decrease in these species’ populations.

These results came to the attention of Bernhardt, who arranged several meetings with top officials at FWS. The report was never released and instead a process was put in motion changing the method by which FWS, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) assess chemical threats to endangered species. Specifically, scientists would no longer be able to consider the indirect—but very real—effects of pesticide exposure to endangered species (e.g., pesticide drift in air or water, contamination of food sources).

The chemical industry has long advocated that federal scientists not consider indirect impacts of pesticide exposure when determining threats to public and environmental health. However, FWS staff noted in their report that there are “Few limits on labels for when and where these pesticides can be used so exposure can be widespread,” and that “These pesticides have been found far from sites of application.”

Staff point to the kit fox as an example of an endangered species population that was nearly wiped out due to indirect impacts. This is because the fox’s food sources were contaminated by pesticides from farming practices in the San Joaquin Valley. If industry changes the process by which risks to wildlife are assessed, farms will no longer be considered as an indirect source of pesticide exposure.

If indirect impacts do cause widespread harm to endangered species, it would not be accounted for and the US would be at risk of losing hundreds of endangered species.

The bald eagle was chosen June 20, 1782 as the emblem of the United States. Bipartisan support of the Endangered Species Act and the listing of the bald eagle as endangered under this legislation helped increase the emblematic species population to a healthy number. Source: Ross Eliott/Flickr

Bernhardt restricts use of science at Interior Department

In one of the most egregious attacks on science that UCS has documented to date, Bernhardt signed an order in September 2018 that immediately restricted the use of science at DOI. The order, known as the “Promoting Open Science” order, requires scientific data to be made publicly accessible. However, some data cannot be made accessible to the public for legal reasons because the release of such data can endanger individuals, rare and threatened species, and culturally or religiously important sites.

The order also requires data used in policy decisions be reproducible. This in effect can exclude important contributions from older studies where raw data is inaccessible. Therefore, the number of scientific studies that can be used to inform policy decisions at the DOI will inevitably go down. Future scientific studies by DOI agencies are likely to be restricted in their scope and methodology, and the order may deter outside scientists from working with DOI agencies, out of fear that confidential information could be released.

This order means science will take a back seat in DOI policies, increase the opportunities for outside influence on agency decisions, and result in policies that are not informed by the best available science, threatening the health and safety of the public and our environment.

This beautiful vernal pool is filled with the yellow wildflower commonly known as Contra Costa Goldfields (Lasthenia conjugens). The endangered wildflower species is one that is at risk of being lost likely because pollinating insects that it depends on are being killed by toxic pesticides. Photo: Kevin Bertolero/Flickr

Bernhardt silences climate change science

On December 22, 2017, Bernhardt quietly issued Secretarial Order 3360, which rescinded multiple policies on climate change and conservation. These changes undercut the Department of Interior’s (DOI) ability to fulfill its mission of conserving and managing the nation’s natural resources.

The order revokes a Departmental Manual chapter on climate change, a Departmental Manual chapter on landscape-scale mitigation policy, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manual section on mitigation, and a 2016 BLM handbook on mitigation. The order additionally directs the head of BLM to reassess the BLM Draft Regional Mitigation Strategy for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and directs BLM to reissue a separate Bush-era guidance on offsite mitigation.

The now-rescinded policies had directed the DOI to take the threat of climate change and its foreseeable effects into account when making decisions. For example, the Departmental Manual chapter on climate change directed that the DOI “will use the best available science to increase understanding of climate change impacts, inform decisionmaking, and coordinate an appropriate response to impacts on land, water, wildlife, cultural and tribal resources, and other assets.”

Climate change is already having impacts across the US. Ignoring and failing to plan for its current and future effects puts America’s public lands, wildlife, and people at unnecessary risk.

Bernhardt is not qualified to run a science-based agency

The Department of the Interior should rely on science to make the best decisions for America’s parks, wildlife, and people. Time and time again, we have seen Bernhardt sideline science in critical DOI decisions. (He is also riddled with extensive conflicts of interest). There is no doubt that he would continue his siege on science if he is confirmed as Interior secretary.

Bernhardt is clearly unqualified to lead a science-based agency that makes decisions that affect so much of the country. Let’s hope the Senate agrees.