Marching Orders

Documents seemingly prove that politics, not science, is determining endangered-species listings

When it comes to developing policy, the Bush administration has a reputation for relying more on conversations with God and the energy sector than on sound science.

Conservationists and environmentalists have long been vexed by the Bush administration, charging, for example, that political automatons have edited scientific reports on global warming. It's not hard to imagine fresh-faced, naïve graduates of Pat Robertson's Regent University School of Law revising studies with squeaky Magic Markers.

However, the latest scientific revision hits a lot closer to home. In mid-May, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity came forward with documents obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that show agency officials ignored--and actively contradicted--the recommendations of their own scientists on removing Arizona's bald eagles from the endangered-species list.

"It's truly puzzling," said Kieran Suckling, CBD policy director. "Usually in these kinds of scenarios, it's easy to understand the motivations: The developers want to build; the pygmy owl is in the way. This is a very odd one, because there isn't tremendous pressure from developers to get the bald eagle off the endangered-species list.

"So why is the agency so hell-bent on removing protections from the Arizona bald eagle, even though all of the scientists are telling them not to do it? It's a bit of a mystery, frankly."

Suckling theorized that the USFWS may be hesitant to tarnish the recovery "success story" by admitting a weakness in the Southwest. Nationally, bald eagles are expected to be removed from the endangered-species list at the end of June. According to the USFWS, nesting pairs in the contiguous United States have soared from 417 breeding pairs in the early '60s to some 10,000 today.

Arizona, however, has a much more tenuous population of about 40 breeding pairs.

In 2004, conservationists filed a petition with the USFWS for Southwestern eagles to continue receiving protections as a "distinct population segment." To meet that standard, they must be endangered, "biologically distinct" from other eagles and significant as a group within the larger population.

At least one USFWS biologist mentioned in the petition said "downlisting" Arizona's bald-eagle population--from endangered to threatened, for example--was not supported by those overseeing the eagle's reintroduction.

"Although this region (Southwest) has met its recovery goals, both the recovery team and the FWS have recommended against downlisting because of threats to habitat, small size of population and adverse climactic conditions," the petition quoted raptor biologist Robert Mesta as saying. Mesta's argument was repeated by conservationists, including Suckling.

The USFWS prepared a review in February 2006, in which it agreed in large part with many of the petition's findings. However, federal officials denied the petition in August 2006. They said the desert-nesting eagles were a distinct population, but were neither endangered nor biologically significant.

The decision was handed down just after a panel of seven scientists, convened to offer advice to the USFWS, had issued a letter stating that "the Southwest population appears to be less viable than populations in other parts of the country and may not warrant delisting at this time."

Suckling said the decision is surprising. "As these memos show, when the scientists working for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Arizona sat down to examine the species, they kept saying, 'It's imperiled; it's significant. And then bureaucrats step in and say, 'We're not here to debate; we've already made the decision. Your job is to give us the analysis we need to take it off the list.' It was just shocking and wildly illegal."

Indeed, meeting minutes obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity do seem to show USFWS officials trying to fix the facts around a decision that seemed to have been made by top brass long before August 2006.

Chris Tollefson, chief of public affairs for the Fish and Wildlife Service, didn't return phone calls and Blackberry messages from the Weekly.

Meeting notes from April 4, 2006, show that USFWS Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle "didn't agree" with classifying the eagles as a distinct population segment (DPS). Tuggle was then asked "what he would like."

Notes from a May 16 meeting indicate Doug Krofta, a Fish and Wildlife Service administrator who oversees the listing of endangered species, had given orders to use information from agency files that "refutes petitions but not anything that supports."

Notes from July 18 show that USFWS officials were mulling over the Bush administration's take on distinct population segments. Chris Nolan, chief of the USFWS Division of Conservation and Classification, said bestowing the DPS designation was "largely a policy call." Meanwhile, the notes said Krofta remarked: "We've been given an answer, now we need to find an analysis that fits."

Another official at that meeting claimed not to understand "the logic" behind what was going on, adding that the agency was being inconsistent with its findings. But then Sarah Quamme of the Albuquerque regional office stated: "We have marching orders."

The CBD has asked U.S. Attorney for Arizona Ann Harwood to investigate the USFWS for permitting unlawful political interference in the eagle decision. Their complaint has been forwarded to an investigative agency for review.

In January, the CBD filed a lawsuit to force the USFWS to keep the Arizona eagle on the endangered-species list and incorporate the scientific evidence the service appeared to have suppressed in its management plans.

"The government knows they have no chance of winning this," Suckling said. He added that the Fish and Wildlife Service has come to the CBD offering to change its finding on their petition and study the Arizona eagle's status, but only after the Arizona eagle has been removed from the endangered-species list, along with the other eagles in the United States.

All this comes hot on the heels of another Bush wildlife scandal. Julie MacDonald resigned in May as Interior Department deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, weeks after the department's inspector general released a report that was critical of her for personally reversing scientists' findings on endangered species.

Kiering thought the current controversy over bald eagles may be rooted in MacDonald's widely reported directive to ignore evidence that supports endangered-species petitions. The USFWS is a bureau of the Interior Department.

Interestingly, the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists stated in a May 1 press release that "the pervasive problem of political interference at federal agencies was not solved by (MacDonald's) departure." According to a UCS survey, some two-thirds of 303 USFWS scientists "were aware of cases in which Interior Department political appointees interfered with scientific findings."

Eighty-four scientists said "they were directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from agency scientific documents."

So much for science.