Endangered Species Process ‘Abused’ By Wildlife Service

Report says three Rim Country species among those subject to manipulation by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Tom Brossart/Roundup

Desert Bald Eagles like these two photographed on the shores of a Rim Country lake were among the species in the report.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife official in charge of protecting endangered species repeatedly “interjected herself personally and profoundly” to prevent the listing of species and used tactics that were “abrupt and abrasive, if not abusive” to intimidate and demoralize managers and biologists, concludes a recently released report from the Office of the Inspector General.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees by ignoring the law and politicizing decisions that were supposed to be based on biology, including the initial refusal to list three Rim Country species — the Desert Bald Eagle, the Northern Mexican Garter Snake and the Spikedace Loach Minnow.

The inspector general’s office investigated 20 requests to list endangered species under the tenure of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald and documented improper interventions in 13 of those cases that jeopardized decisions.

The inspectors also found repeated cases in which field level biologists either adjusted their opinions by recommending less protection than warranted in an effort to try to get some action past MacDonald, or had recommendations overruled by regional and national administrators.

“The cloud of MacDonald’s overreach, and the actions of those who enabled and assisted her, have caused the unnecessary expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-issue decisions and litigation costs to defend decisions that, in at least two cases, the courts have found to be arbitrary and capricious,” the report said.

That includes the Fish and Wildlife Service’s initial refusal to consider separately listing the desert population of the bald eagle as threatened or endangered.

Only the threat of lawsuits forced the federal government to study listing and habitat protection for the Northern Mexican Garter Snake, the Spikedace Loach Minnow, and the Roundtail Chub, found in the Verde River and other Rim Country streams, an environmental organization said.

Several Congressional committees requested the investigation, after the department refused to launch its own probe.

Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands Ron Wyden (D-Washington) said “this report makes it crystal clear how one person’s contempt for the public trust can infect an entire agency,” said Wyden. “Congress needs to take immediate steps to make sure that Julie MacDonald’s legacy can never be repeated.”

The inspector general’s office concluded that MacDonald, who has since resigned, exploited a lack of clear and consistent policy guidelines, which haven’t been updated since 1986.

The refusal to follow the law and the lack of clear guidelines created “a wholesale lack of consistency, a process built on guesswork and decisions that could not pass legal muster,” concluded the inspector general. “MacDonald’s zeal to advance her agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity of the ESA program and to the morale and reputation of the FW (Fish and Wildlife Service), as well as potential harm to individual species.”

Every one of the 61 species listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the past eight years years ended up on the list as a result of a successful lawsuit by environmental groups, said Noah Greenwald, with the Centers for Biological Diversity.

Fish and Wildlife officials did not return calls prior to deadline.

Currently, the Fish and Wildlife Service lists 251 candidate species, all considered in danger of extinction. However, all those species languish in the category of “warranted but precluded,” which means the federal agency has determined it doesn’t have the money to formally list them.

These “warranted but precluded” species occupy a category in the law originally intended to let the wildlife service delay formal listing while it completed studies for more immediately endangered species. However, so many of the species in that category are on the documented brink of extinction that they’re all competing with one another for resources — the Catch 22 of extinction, said Greenwald.

A pending lawsuit by the Centers for Biological Diversity has challenged the number of species in the “warranted but precluded” category, since the administration is not actively pursuing other listings, as required by the law, said Greenwald.

Ironically, the budget for listing species has risen from $3 million annually to $8 million annually, despite the dramatic reduction in species actually listed, said Greenwald.

“As it stands,” concluded the investigation, “lawsuits are driving nearly everything the FW does in the Endangered Species Act arena … We believe the department owes the public a fair and consistent application of rules in making its ESA decisions. When the career staff does not know what the results are — because they changed, sometimes on a daily basis — surely the public cannot have confidence in the process.”

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