By Dan Shapley
What do the Santa Ana sucker, the loach minnow and the Mississippi gopher frog have in common?
Great names, yes. Also, their decline toward extinction is being ignored by the Bush Administration, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which is filing lawsuits aimed at forcing the Fish and Wildlife Service to list protect habitat for six species.
The group asserts that the Bush Administration has stripped protections for 55 species in all -- it promises more lawsuits -- by reducing the acreage of protected lands or denying applications to list new species as threatened or endangered. Its charge is that scientific findings have been ignored by political appointees.
In all, the group plans to challenge decisions affecting 55 endangered species and 8.7 million acres.
Below the Center for Biological Diversity's summary of its charges. Whether or not the charges hold up in court remains to be seen.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists issued decisions to list the Montana fluvial arctic grayling and garter snake as endangered species, but those decisions were reversed by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald and other high ranking officials. MacDonald also slashed 75,408 acres from a proposal by Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to protect 143,680 acres of critical habitat for the loach minnow; 18,560 acres from a proposal to protect 60,144 acres for the spikedace, and 15,414 acres from a proposal to protect 23,719 acres for the Santa Ana sucker.
Following a scathing report by the Department of the Interior inspector general documenting systematic abuse and overruling of federal scientists, MacDonald resigned her post in early 2007.
To quell the scandal, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pledged to review eight decisions illegally reversed by MacDonald. This cynical effort at damage control flamed the controversy, however, because MacDonald is implicated in more than 100 cases of overruling science. In response to a congressional request, the Government Accountability Office is currently investigating additional instances of science manipulation by MacDonald. See full report on political interference in the Department of Interior.
Here is information, provided by the Center for Biological Diversity, about the species that are the subject of the first lawsuits:
- Montana fluvial arctic grayling. The Montana fluvial arctic grayling was once widely distributed throughout the upper Missouri River drainage above Great Falls, MT. It has been reduced to a single population in the upper Big Hole River in southwestern Montana. Having already been extirpated from 95 percent of its range, it continues to be threatened by water withdrawals, livestock grazing, nonnative species, and global warming. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the grayling warranted Endangered Species Act listing in 1994. In 2004, the agency elevated the species priority number from a 9 to a 3 because it was judged to be at imminent risk of extinction. In 2006, agency scientists prepared a draft decision to list the grayling as endangered calling the species status unequivocal. Internal agency memos indicate that MacDonald then intervened and the decision was reversed by the highest levels of management. The final decision to withhold protection was issued on April 24, 2007.
- Mexican garter snake. Dependent on the dwindling rivers and streams of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, the Mexican garter snake has been extirpated from 85-90 percent of its U.S. range. The decline of the Mexican garter snake is closely linked to the deteriorating quality of streamside habitats, the disappearance of native frogs and native fishes, and the rampant introduction and spread of nonnative species such as bullfrogs, crayfish, sunfish, and bass. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists concluded that the snake is endangered. Internal agency documents state that MacDonald was involved in changes to drafts of the finding and that the determination was changed to being not warranted. The final decision to deny protection was issued on September 26, 2006.
- Spikedace and loach minnow. These southwestern fish were once common throughout the Verde, Salt, San Pedro, Gila, and other rivers of Arizona and New Mexico. Their numbers and range have been drastically reduced by habitat destruction and the introduction of nonnative species. Both were listed as threatened species in 1986, but continued to decline. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists declared that they should be upgraded to endangered status in 1994, and in 2000 designated 143,680 acres of critical habitat for the loach minnow and 129,120 acres for the spikedace. On March 21, 2007, the agency slashed the spikedace critical habitat back to 41,584 acres and the loach minnow habitat back to 68,272 acres. Internal agency documents state that MacDonald made a policy decision to define occupied habitat for the two fish as occupied within the previous ten years, which reduced the area or critical habitat that was proposed and eventually designated.
- Santa Ana sucker. This southern California fish has been extirpated from 75 percent of its historic range. It was listed as a threatened species in 2000 and in 2004, Fish and Wildlife Service scientists proposed the designation of 23,719 acres of critical habitat to protect it. They were overruled by Assistant Secretary of Interior Craig Manson and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Randal Bowman. The final decision published on January 1, 2005 slashed 15,414 acres from a proposal leaving just 8,305 acres of protected habitat. In internal agency documents, agency staff complained that the decision made no sense and warned of how difficult this one will be when it comes to straight-facing it with the public and the press.
- Mississippi gopher frog. The Mississippi gopher frog formerly occurred in hundreds of ponds along in the Coastal Plain west of Mobile Bay from Alabama to Mississippi and Louisiana. It has been reduced to just three populations in Mississippi: Glen's Pond, McCoy's Pond (50 miles to the east) and Mike's Pond (20 miles to the west). Under court order, the Bush administration listed it as endangered in 2001, but has failed to develop a recovery plan or to designate critical habitat areas for it. The largest remaining population (Glens Pond) is threatened by plans for a massive housing development several hundred feet from the shoreline.