October 10, 2003
Charging Manipulated Science and Political Interference, Conservation
Sante Fe, NM — October 10. A coalition of conservation organizations sent notice to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) today that they intend to go to court over last month's illegal withdrawal of the proposal to list the mountain plover under the Endangered Species Act. The decision by the Service not to list the plover was unexpected, given continued dramatic declines of this critically imperiled grassland bird. Threats to the plover include massive oil and gas development in plover breeding habitat in Wyoming and Montana, the loss of key habitat such as prairie dog towns throughout the Great Plains, and the conversion of plover winter range in California to cropland and urban sprawl.
The groups argue that the Service's decision was politically motivated, in violation of the ESA's stipulation that listing determinations be based solely on biological information. They also state that the Service refused to consider the best available data in making its decision, which is contrary to the ESA.
"The mountain plover is rapidly declining and desperately in need of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Service's withdrawal of the plover listing proposal was politically motivated, rather than being based on the best available science. The plover listing withdrawal was therefore illegal," said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Endangered Species Director for Forest Guardians.
In its listing withdrawal notice, the Service dismissed two long-term data sets, the Breeding Bird Survey, which shows declining trends of plovers in their breeding range in the Great Plains from 1966-1996, and the Christmas Bird Count, indicating declines of plovers on their wintering range in California from 1955-1999. These are the only long-term data sets available to assess the population trends for this species.
"There's a double standard here", said Erin Robertson, Staff Biologist for Center for Native Ecosystems. "On the one hand the Service is dismissing all the long-term data; on the other hand they're relying heavily on one small, preliminary study. They seem to be grasping at straws to avoid a listing."
The plover was initially proposed for ESA protection in February 1999. Under the ESA, proposed listing rules must be finalized or withdrawn within one year, unless substantial new information contradicts the proposed listing. Conservation groups sued the Service in February 2002, two years past the legal deadline. In October 2002, in a legal settlement, the Service committed to issuing a final determination by September 3, 2003. The conservation groups provided a 36-page report to the Service in March 2003 documenting recent scientific research showing the loss of key breeding strongholds. The report is available here.
The many threats to the plover include industrial development of public lands for oil and gas, urban sprawl, loss of prairie dog habitat, conversion of native grassland to cropland, pesticide use, poorly planned wind farms, and mismanagement of lands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
"The unsupported denial of protection for the mountain plover is yet another unfortunate example of the Bush Administration's attack on America's bedrock conservation and wildlife protection laws," added Jeff Kessler, Conservation Director for Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, WY.
The present Bush administration has listed fewer species under the ESA than any other administration since Reagan, according to information gathered by the Center for Biological Diversity. Only 24 species have been listed under Bush, and all of those listings have been ordered by the courts. In contrast, in their first two years in office, the Clinton Administration listed 211 species and George H.W. Bush listed 80 species. Though the present administration cites underfunding as its excuse for failing to protect imperiled species, for years it has been asking Congress to chronically starve the program of funding.
In addition, the Bush Administration is increasingly coming under fire for its use of "junk science" to avoid conservation actions. Last December, the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Resources issued a report entitled: "Weird Science: the Interior Department's Manipulation of Science for Political Purposes." Among other offenses, the report's authors showed that the Bush Administration has ignored its own biologists when their advice on protecting endangered species is contrary to the demands of industry groups. The report pointed to Interior Department's environmental review of coal-bed methane development in the Powder River Basin, which poses a significant threat to mountain plovers nesting in that region.
Finally, the report discussed the Bush Administration's push to replace the best available science standard presently in the ESA with a "sound science" standard through its support of H.R. 4840. While H.R 4840 was not passed, the Bush Administration demonstrated in its plover withdrawal notice that it continually demanded a likely unachievable level of scientific certainty when assessing the need for listing, and applied a much lower scientific standard to data supportive of the withdrawal. The "Weird Science" report is available here.
In a high-profile case of sacrificing science to the whims of industry, this fall the Service contracted with a Portland, Oregon based firm called Sustainable Ecosystems Institute to review the status of the threatened northern spotted owl, which depends on intact old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. The Institute receives some 44% of their financial support from the timber industry. Its review will determine whether the owl should remain listed under the ESA.
The alliance of conservation groups advocating prompt plover protection includes the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (Laramie, WY), the Center for Biological Diversity (Denver, CO), Center for Native Ecosystems (Boulder, CO), and Forest Guardians (Santa Fe, NM).