Two government entities are investigating the Bush administration over the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Christian Science Monitor reports the US Interior Department is reviewing the scientific integrity of decisions made by a political appointee, Julie MacDonald, who recently resigned under fire. Fish and Wildlife Service employees complained that MacDonald bullied, insulted, and harassed the professional staff to alter their biological reporting. The inspector noted that although she has no formal educational background in biology, she nevertheless labored long and hard editing, commenting on, and reshaping the endangered species program’s scientific reports from the field. Last week Fish and Wildlife announced that eight decisions MacDonald made under the ESA would be examined for scientific and legal discrepancies.
Meanwhile Congress is investigating evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney interfered with decisions involving water in California and Oregon resulting in a mass kill of Klamath River salmon, including threatened species. As the CSM reports, both episodes illustrate the Bush administration’s resistance to the law. Earlier, the Washington Post ran the story of Cheney’s personal interference in the water decision that killed the salmon in 2002:
In Oregon, a battleground state that the Bush-Cheney ticket had lost by less than half of 1 percent, drought-stricken farmers and ranchers were about to be cut off from the irrigation water that kept their cropland and pastures green. Federal biologists said the Endangered Species Act left the government no choice: The survival of two imperiled species of fish was at stake. Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in. First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers. Because of Cheney’s intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.
Or, in the words of Bruce Barcott in MoJo’s piece, What’s A River For?:
On the morning of September 19, 2002, the Yurok fishermen who set their gill nets near the mouth of the Klamath River arrived to find the largest salmon run in years fully under way. The fish had returned from the ocean to the Klamath, on the Northern California coast, to begin their long trip upstream to spawn; there were thousands of them, as far as the eye could see. And they were dying. Full-grown 30-pounders lay beached on shore-line rocks. Smaller fish floated in midriver eddies. Day after day they kept washing up; by the third day, biologists were estimating that 33,000 fish had been killed [since revised upward to 70,000] in one of the largest salmon die-offs in U.S. history. The Yurok knew immediately what had happened. For months they, along with state experts and commercial fishermen, had been pleading with the federal government to stop diverting most of the river’s water into the potato and alfalfa fields of Oregon’s upper Klamath Basin. But the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of federal irrigation projects, refused to intervene.
The CSM reports the House Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing next week to investigate political influence on agency science and decisionmaking. As reported in the Blue Marble scientists are aware of the persistent unsciencing of their work. Thirty-eight prominent wildlife biologists and environmental ethics specialists recently signed a letter protesting a new Bush administration interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. They’re concerned for the future of animals such as wolves and grizzly bears. If Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt has his way, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to protect animals and plants only where they’re actually battling for survival, not where they’re in good shape. That means, for instance, that Bald Eagles would never have been protected decades ago since they were doing fine in Alaska, although practically extinct in the lower 48.
During Bush/Cheney, the listing of endangered and threatened species has slowed to a fraction the number the Bush senior made in only four years (58 new listings compared with 231), and most of those were court-ordered, according to the CSM. New funding has been cut as well, and only 278 candidate species are waiting to join the list of 1,352. Mother Jones’ recent piece, Gone, detailed why the presence of many kinds of life on earth is important to the survival of life itself. Seven of 10 biologists believe the sixth great extinction currently underway is a greater threat to life on earth than even global climate change.
It’s ephemerally comforting to think George W. Bush might go down in history as the worst of all U.S. presidents. More realistically, Dick Cheney will get the honor. . . Assuming there’s a history to come. JULIA WHITTY