Washington Office Overrules Biologists On Protecting Snake

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Photo by Jeff Servoss, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A lawsuit by an environmental group forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Northern Mexican Garter Snake as endangered.

Administrators in Washington simply threw out biologists’ recommendation to list as endangered the Rim Country’s Northern Mexican Garter Snake, according to an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General.

The controversial head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a few handwritten notes rejecting the conclusions of the field biologists at the beginning of a long report. Wildlife service administrators in Washington then concluded the Northern Mexican Garter Snake couldn’t be listed without more information from Mexico — where the snake was already classified as endangered.

A lawsuit by an environmental group subsequently forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to reverse that finding, one of more than a dozen cases in which the inspector general concluded decisions to overrule field biologists cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and harmed many species.

Jeffrey Servoss, a biologist in the region that includes the Rim Country, told investigators he originally recommended the Wildlife Service list the Northern Mexican Garter Snake as endangered, since the once-wide-ranging, fish-hunting reptile persisted only in Tonto Creek and a few isolated stock ponds. Its range had also declined drastically in northern Mexico, but studies there remained fragmentary and incomplete.

His recommendation went to Washington, but pages 8 through 14 of a 160-page report came back about a week later with hand-written notes from Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald indicating the report should instead reject a listing in the U.S. due to the lack of reliable information from Mexico.

Servoss told investigators it appeared MacDonald hadn’t read the full report, since later sections of the report included extensive information from Mexico.

Servoss said he reluctantly agreed to change the recommendation, but left intact all the scientific information that underscored his original conclusion.

An attorney from the Solictor’s Office reviewed the revised recommendation and concluded that it was “legally indefensible,” because the scientific information Servoss left in the back of the report contradicted the findings.

Nonetheless, the Wildlife Service concluded the snake should not be listed as endangered, citing the uncertainty about the snake’s exact status in Mexico.

Environmental groups sued and the Wildlife Service reversed its position.

Endangered minnow

Arizona Fish and Wildlife Service biologists trying to make a case for protecting the rapidly dwindling Spikedace and Loach minnows in the Verde River juggled politics and biology to get their recommendation past officials in Washington, according to an Office of the Inspector General’s investigation.

The two native desert fish once occurred throughout Arizona, including Rim Country. The key question in listing them as endangered lay in what rivers and streams biologists would list as “critical habitat,” vital to the eventual recovery of the species.

The inspector general’s investigation concluded that Fish and Wildlife Service field biologists had grown accustomed to designating as little critical habitat as possible, for fear MacDonald would reject the proposals on economic grounds.

The report said field biologists and administrators had “been raked over the coals” in the past for including too much critical habitat in a listing recommendation.

The field biologists initially argued for a listing that would include the Verde River and many of its tributaries.

New policies required biologists to always designate the bare minimum amount of habitat the species might need. Moreover, they could only designate habitat they could prove the species occupied at the moment the listing was proposed.

The field biologists edited their own report to omit stretches of the Verde River to show they were trying to be “reasonable,” Mary Richardson, an administrator in the regional office, told the investigators.

Even so, the Washington office complained the recommendation was too long, indicating the field staff spent too much time on it. MacDonald intended to reject the preferred alternative and edit down the critical habitat proposed, the administrator indicated.

Biologists told investigators they ultimately accepted the changes because they “had been ‘beat up’ so much in the past that they had resigned themselves to just surviving MacDonald’s tenure,” the report concluded.

The report didn’t directly address another rapidly vanishing Rim Country fish caught up in a similar problem — the Roundtail Chub.

The native Roundtail Chub, or Verde Trout, is an insect and fish-eating game fish that once occurred throughout the extended drainage of the Colorado River and still holds out in a few isolated streams. It persists in the Verde River, Fossil Creek and West Clear Creek.

In response to a lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the fish as endangered — but excluding as critical habitat all of the lower Colorado River drainage — which would include Rim Country.

Environmental groups sued and the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed itself, agreeing to include as critical habitat streams that drain into the lower Colorado River where the fish still exists as critical habitat.

The chub and the two Arizona minnows will now likely join the line of 251 other species listed as “warranted but precluded,” which means that although they are threatened with extinction, other demands on the department’s resources preclude actually taking steps to protect them.

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