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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent announcement that the greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act waswidely hailed as a conservation success. Federal officials, along with industry supporters and Western communities across the grouse’s 11-state range, claimed voluntary state and landowner actions were enough to protect the bird and avoid federal restrictions.

But another explanation lurks behind Fish and Wildlife’s decision regarding the grouse and other imperiled species that have dodged or received less-protective ESA listings in recent years: Political interference and a lack of scientific integrity are influencing outcomes and hampering the agency’s work.

According to a new survey and report compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 73 percent of Fish and Wildlife scientists say political influence is too high at the agency, and a majority believes their office is less effective than it was five years ago. Those alarming figures stand out at Fish and Wildlife, compared with other surveyed federal science agencies, where staff members generally feel scientific integrity is holding firm or on the rise.

During his first inauguration speech in 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” and later ordered agencies to draft scientific integrity policies for the first time ever. Those were welcome steps for researchers who felt politics trampled science-based management during the George W. Bush administration. But the implementation and effectiveness of those policies remain fuzzy.

According to the survey, many government scientists remain unaware of their agencies’ policies or what they mean, says Gretchen Goldman, the report’s lead author. For example, the policies should enable agency researchers to publish their own peer-reviewed research and review agency documents that use their studies and names before they are released, but many respondents admitted they were unfamiliar with those protections, Goldman says. Still, compared with surveys conducted during the Bush administration, scientists at the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say agency effectiveness is increasing.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service is another story. In addition to scientists’ overwhelming indictment of political influence at the agency, many identified a lack of staff capacity and resources to complete their jobs. Further, more than half of surveyed Fish and Wildlife researchers said the agency seldom or only occasionally collects sufficient scientific and monitoring data to do its work—a much greater proportion than respondents from other agencies.

“That jumped out to me,” Goldman says. “The second you don’t have the ability to use the science, you get more vulnerable to political interference.”

Comments shared through the surveys also indicated concerns over “accommodations to the states,” Goldman adds, which potentially diminish science-based outcomes since states may be more interested in avoiding federal restrictions than doing what’s best for species, such as the grouse.

Allegations of heavy-handed political influence aren’t new, and whistleblower cases have previously exposed questionable decisions. For instance,a whistleblower retaliation case in Texas, settled last fall, documented how a Fish and Wildlife scientist was transferred and basically forced into early retirement after he argued politics and scientific misconduct factored into a nonlisting for the dunes sagebrush lizard, whose habitat overlaps with the oil-rich Permian Basin.

Yet there are some signs of progress. Compared with surveys of Fish and Wildlife’s Ecological Services staff during the Bush years, twice as many employees say morale is now good or excellent, and more feel they are now allowed to speak with the media and public about their work.

Somewhat ironically, Fish and Wildlife declined to make an official available for interview and instead issued a statement via email: “The service is fully committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity, and welcomes the findings from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ survey. We will carefully review the information in the survey and continue our commitment to ensure broad awareness, understanding, and implementation of the Department of the Interior's Science Integrity Policy.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl lives in the desert scrub and mesquite woodlands of central and southern Arizona, Texas and Mexico. It is a small bird with swaths of cream-colored feathers, measuring about 7 inches long and weighing a little more than 2 ounces. It eats insects, rodents and lizards, some of them as big as the owls themselves. It nests in the holes woodpeckers leave in cacti and trees.

And it has now become an emblem in a fight over the meaning of a five-word phrase that has dogged the 1973 Endangered Species Act the way “waters of the United States” has muddied the Clean Water Act: If a species, like the pygmy owl, is at risk of being lost in “a significant portion of its range,” does it merit protection, even if the same species is holding on elsewhere? Or do the inhabitants of that “significant portion” need to be crucial to the entire species’ survival?

Those are the questions the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service sought to address this summer, when they announced a new policy to provide “consistency in the application of that phrase” as it applies to endangered or threatened species. Under the new policy, a species on the decline in "a significant portion of its range" can be listed as threatened or endangered only if that portion is crucial to the survival of the species' entire global population.

In other words, if the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl will persist even after the species disappears from, for instance, the northern Sonoran Desert, the bird doesn't warrant protection.

It is not the clarification conservationists wanted. If the interpretation sticks, some say, the 1973 law will have fundamentally changed — reverted, in fact, to the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act that the 1973 law was written to improve.

“The 1966 law was deemed inadequate in part because scientists pointed out that actions taken only to prevent the complete extinction of a species were likely not to (work),” says Michael Paul Nelson, a professor and environmental ethicist at Oregon State University. “It defined 'endangered species' merely as 'species at risk of extinction.'”

The phrase “significant portion of its range” allowed wildlife agencies to list species whose numbers were diminishing in the U.S., even if global populations were stable.

In a recent New York Times editorial, Nelson and Michigan Technological University Ecologist John Vucetich argued that the new policy threatens to reduce the act to “a mechanism that merely preserves representatives of a species, like curating rare pieces in a museum.”

The bald eagle might never have merited protection were the policy in effect back in the 1970s; while hunting and DDT were decimating it, it still thrived in Alaska and Canada. The gray wolf wouldn't have been listed, either. The new interpretation of those five words has already been used in the process of delisting the wolf and to deny protection to the wolverine. And it has already contributed to the delisting of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl’s disappearance from parts of its northern range toward the end of the 20th century wasn’t a mystery: Development had surged in the northern Sonoran Desert. In 1997, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as endangered, developers were livid.

“The bird's listing is ‘dishonest,’” Alan Lurie, executive director of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, told Tony Davis, who reported on it for High Country News. "Experts tell me the bird is prolific in Mexico (so) it is not truly endangered."

Lurie was partially right: The pygmy owl was first listed on the grounds that it was a “distinct population segment” from the pygmy-owls on the Mexican side of the border, which it technically wasn't. Developers sued, and in 2006, the pygmy owl’s listing was overturned.

Yet the owl was clearly endangered in the northern Sonoran Desert. So the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned again for the bird’s protection, arguing this time that it was “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

At first, Fish and Wildlife agreed. "They actually drafted a proposed rule to list them, arguing for various reasons that we were right," says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the organization in Portland, Oregon. In that draft, which the Center for Biological Diversity obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, “the Sonoran Desert Ecoregion” was deemed “significant,” and the listing of the pygmy-owl within it was warranted.

Then something changed. “Two years later, they looked at that draft policy and said, ‘Nope, you’re not right. Even if (the pygmy owl) were lost in the Sonoran Desert, the species as a whole would be OK.’” A new draft in 2011 claimed that the Sonoran Desert pygmy owl’s “contribution to the viability of the species” wasn't important enough to list it. The petition was denied.

It was the exact—and to Greenwald and Nelson, deeply flawed—interpretation the Interior Department had been pushing for since 2000, and the exact interpretation that had already been struck down by the Ninth Circuit in a case involving the flat-tailed horned lizard in 2001.

And it was the exact interpretation many conservationists were hoping the Obama administration would overturn, not support, in its clarification. “The policy itself is a political decision to try and limit the scope of the ESA,” Greenwald says. His organization will likely sue again, on behalf of the pygmy owl.

Michael Paul Nelson says the new policy also misses the point. “Many of us would suggest that the ESA is not only about preserving curiosities and the cabinets necessary for those curiosities, but about preserving the role that native species play within ecosystems,” he wrote in an email from the field, where he’s studying the impact of old-growth versus second-growth forests on fish.

The Obama administration’s new policy states clearly that the ESA is “only about preventing the complete extinction of a species, no more,” Nelson says. “I would guess that the citizens of the United States, then and now, might have a very different answer.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor of High Country News, where this story originally appeared.

Published in Environment

This spring, the Gulf of California’s shores near the mouth of the Colorado River were littered with dead bodies. They weren’t casualties of the drug trade; instead, they were victims of another international market—the Asian desire for wildlife.

Chinese demand for the swim bladders of the giant totoaba fish, thought to aid fertility, inspired the poaching of hundreds of the rare fish. The single organ was removed; the carcasses were left to rot.

The totoaba, which can reach 6 feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds, has been protected since the ’70s by both the Mexican and U.S. governments. But with one totoaba bladder bringing more than $10,000 on the Asian market, there's major incentive to catch the fish illegally.

Poachers turned to totoaba after a similar species of fish in China was eaten nearly to extinction, says Jill Birchell, a special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

China has become the world's largest market for wildlife products, and as its native animals vanish, Chinese consumers seek substitutes. This means that in this country, animals that have historically faced little pressure from hunters suddenly become targets.

"This kind of large-scale trade and consumption of wildlife has never been part of Chinese tradition or culture," writes the Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare China, Grace Ge Gabriel. "It is the disastrous and abnormal consequences of today’s highly industrialized chain of wildlife poaching, smuggling, transportation and trade."

Here in California, trappers killed 1,500 bobcats last year, an increase of 50 percent over the previous year. Most pelts were shipped to China, where a single skin sells for $700 or more. The state's commercial abalone fishery was shut down in 1997, but illegal capture of the shellfish is rampant; a single abalone brings $100 to $150 on the Chinese market. Ninety-five percent of geoducks, long-necked clams found off the coast of Washington, now end up in China, where they're worth up to $150 per pound. And manta rays have nearly vanished from the Sea of Cortez, killed for the parts of their gills called rakers, which are prized as ingredients in a Chinese health tonic.

Now that China's wild bears have been wiped out, black bears in the West are sought for their gallbladders and paws. It is true that some 10,000 bears are "farmed" in China—kept alive in cages to keep producing bile—but many consumers prefer wild-sourced bear parts. In Alaska and Canada, polar bears are hunted for hides; Chinese collectors will pay $5,000 for a pelt.

This huge spike in demand reflects increasing Chinese affluence. As the nation’s middle class expands, so does its desire for "status" goods: fur coats, exotic meats and fish, ivory carvings and so on.

"Many people in the upper middle class want to emulate the wealthiest Chinese," says Quentin Fong, of the University of Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. Traditional Chinese medicine, which uses plants and animal parts to treat illness and enhance sexual performance, is also a major source of demand. Although its ingredients are often ineffective as well as illegal, traditional medicine continues to gain in popularity.

We've seen this pattern before in the American West. Bison, beaver and the Lahontan cutthroat trout all disappeared into the maw of a nation hungry for meat and fur. While China currently leads the way, the United States is thought to be the world's second-largest market for wildlife products.

Demand for wildlife parts in China, however, is on a much larger scale. Although all of Asia is involved in the wildlife trade, China's sheer size alone puts it at the heart of the problem—with 1.3 billion people and an economic growth rate of around 9 percent—all compounded by a government that has largely refused to crack down on wildlife trafficking.

Here at home, we also lack the resources to protect dwindling wildlife populations from local poachers, let alone from the growing demands of a global marketplace. Some attempts are being made to stanch the flow; a bill introduced in the California Legislature this spring seeks to ban commercial bobcat trapping. (Assembly Bill 1213 passed the Assembly on May 28 and is now in the Senate’s hands.) But game wardens are few and far between, and tackling international poaching and smuggling rings can require years of coordinated efforts among many agencies.

It’s not that different from the drug war: The real key lies in reducing demand. But controlling China's appetite for wild animals will take hard work on many fronts, including stronger laws, better enforcement and, most importantly, education, to discourage the use of animals for status symbols or for ersatz medicine. As Fong says, "Chinese people are concerned about sustainability and the environment, but that has not yet transmitted to behavior change.”

Meanwhile, each time one species of Western wildlife disappears, pressure ratchets up on those remaining, and time is running out for all of them.

Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is the magazine’s managing editor in Paonia, Colo.

Published in Community Voices

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