Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.

CONTACT: Kieran Suckling, Center for Biological Diversity (520) 623-5252 x305
More Information: Center's Mexican spotted owl web, F&WS's press release



Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has refused to obey a court order to protect the Mexican spotted owl in order to create a legal train wreck she hopes will bolster Bush administration proposals to weaken the Endangered Species Act and forest protection laws. The Center for Biological Diversity has asked a federal judge to find her in contempt of court, and ensure that the threatened owl and its habitat are protected in AZ, and NM.

As the court has already blasted Norton for behaving “nonsensically” and “with apparent disregard of the courts,” (see below) the Bush administration is rightfully fearful that a contempt charge will be issued later this month. To divert attention from its blatant disregard of the courts and environmental laws, the Department of Interior prompted the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) office to issue a wildly exaggerated press release on October 1, 2003 to mislead the media and cause an outcry against endangered species and the federal court system.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is lying through its teeth,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is a desperate act by a desperate agency trying to provide political cover for the Bush Administration. Gale Norton engineered this crisis for political reasons, and should be held in contempt of court immediately.”

According to the USFWS press release, “a lean budget” has made the agency unable to comply with a federal court order to designate critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl. It then claims that the Center for Biological Diversity’s contempt of court motion requires that any and all logging, thinning, and fire threat reduction projects be stopped on all federal, state, and private lands in AZ, and NM.

“The USFWS is doing Norton’s dirty work,” said Suckling, “its media spin is complete bunk. The Center has always supported legitimate thinning projects; in fact, it is carrying out its own thinning projects on three national forests in Arizona and New Mexico. And we have clearly told the Department of Interior that the terms of the injunction request, to be filed with the court next week, will allow legitimate fire reduction and forest restoration projects to proceed.” The Center will file the final terms of its injunction request on October 9, 2003.

The USFWS press release also purposefully misrepresents the Department of Interior’s intentions. It states that DOI has asked the court to extend the critical habitat deadline to January 2005. In fact, DOI’s primary request is to delay the designation indefinitely. Knowing the court is unlikely to do so, the DOI has asked that if its primary request is not granted, that the deadline be extended to January 2005, but with the express proviso that it be able to delay beyond that if it doesn’t budget sufficient funds to get the work done. Thus the DOI has not requested any extension that would guarantee critical habitat protection by January 2005.

“The Bush Administration has no intention of ever designating critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl,” said Suckling. “It purposefully budgeted too little money to protect the owl’s habitat. It even refused an offer of more money by Congress. To ask the court to link the spotted owl’s fate to the Administration’s continuing budget manipulations is outrageous.”

On May 29, 2003, Craig Manson, the Assistant Secretary of Interior told the Environmental News Service “the administration has not requested supplemental funding for this year even though Congress suggested this because that would not solve the long term problem of critical habitat.” In Administration’s eyes, the long term problem of critical habitat is its very existence.

Background Information

On July 21, 2000 the Clinton Administration proposed to designate 13.5 million acres of critical habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl in AZ, NM, UT, and CO. After the election of the Bush Administration, however, the Department of Interior ordered the USFWS to implement a timber industry proposal to exclude all national forests in AZ and NM even though they contain over 90% of all known spotted owls and are the most heavily logged segment of spotted owl habitat. Thus, on February 1, 2001, the USFWS slashed 8.9 million acres from the Clinton proposal, excluding all eleven national forests in the two states. Instead its proposal focused on National Parks, National Monuments, and BLM lands where no logging occurs, and thus the industry is not affected. At the time, one of the USFWS’s own biologists complained that “the designation would make no biological sense if the U.S. Forest Services land was excluded since these lands are the most essential for the owl.”

On January 13, 2003, Tucson Federal Judge David C. Bury agreed. Calling the eviscerated critical habitat “nonsensical,” he blasted the Administration for knowingly violating the Endangered Species Act:

"Defendant [Secretary of Interior] knew or should have known that their decision not to designate critical habitat in Arizona or New Mexico on the basis that it would provide no 'additional' protection was unlawful. Indeed Defendant and FWS have been told by no fewer than three federal courts, including the Ninth Circuit, that its position is untenable and in contravention to the ESA. Nevertheless, with apparent disregard of the courts, Defendant decided not to designated critical habitat ... on the basis that 'adequate' plans were already in place and 'additional' protection was unnecessary. This argument has already failed three times. It fails yet again here."

Bury initially ordered Norton to complete the designation by July 2003. The Department of Interior asked for an extension to April, 2004 with an interim deadline for a proposed designation on October 13, 2003. The Center did not oppose the extension, so it was granted. In July 2003, the Department asked the Center to agree to extend the deadline once again, this time to January 2005. The Center sent a written acceptance of the additional extension to the Department of Interior on July 15, 2003. The agreement was predicated on the Interior Department agreeing to also complete long-delayed recovery plans and listings for a number of other imperiled species. Top bureaucrats at the Department of Interior then blocked the agreement and would not even respond to the Center’s offer. The Bush Administration blocked the agreement because it wants a crisis, not a peaceful settlement.

“The Administration torpedoed a simple agreement because has no interest in negotiations or peaceful resolution,” said Suckling. “Its one and only goal is to cause a political train wreck in order to justify attacking the Endangered Species Act. It doesn’t care how many endangered species get hurt.”

Ignoring the Center’s acceptance of the USFWS offer, the Department of Interior filed papers with the court on August 27, 2003 asking that the critical habitat designation be delayed indefinitely. The filings admitted that the USFWS was not permitted to do any work on the critical designation since the court order was issued in January. Thus the agency made absolutely no attempt to comply with the court order. This admission prompted the Center to request that contempt of court charges be filed in September 2003.


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