“We’ve already seen Zinke put politics over science in Endangered Species Act decisions, from the Pacific walrus in Alaska to boreal toads in Colorado,”
WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration today to expose a secretive program that denies Endangered Species Act protection to imperiled species like the Pacific walrus.
Today’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., follows controversy over the Species Status Assessment (SSA) program. Using the SSA, Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke and the Trump administration have denied protection to the walrus and are preparing to strip safeguards from the Canada lynx and American burying beetle.
The Center was contacted by a scientist who was removed from the American burying beetle SSA team in January after raising questions about the methodology and conclusions being drawn about the endangered insect.
“Zinke’s secretive program is basically a roach motel for imperiled wildlife,” said Ryan Shannon, a Center staff attorney. “At-risk species go into this little black box and they often don’t come out. Decisions about whether animals like the Pacific walrus get protections are matters of life and death. They should be based on science, not politics.”
The SSA program specifies that teams of scientists will be formed to review the status of species, but team members are directed not to determine whether animals and plants actually need protection. Such critical determinations are instead made by career bureaucrats, who often know little about the species. Although the SSA program does not always result in denial of protection for species, it seems intended to bullet-proof decisions denying protection to species by keeping the record free of the agency’s own scientists’ conclusions about the need for protection.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to publish guidelines that set forth programs such as the SSA in the Federal Register and take public comment. Today’s suit challenges the agency’s failure to do so, and a victory will ensure the program is properly reviewed.
“We’ve already seen Zinke put politics over science in Endangered Species Act decisions, from the Pacific walrus in Alaska to boreal toads in Colorado,” said Shannon. “Forcing the administration to allow public comment on this program will help bring these backroom decisions into the light.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees management of marine endangered species, also forms teams to review the status of species. But these teams make recommendations on whether the species warrant designation as threatened or endangered. The teams are also limited to the agency’s own biologists.
In contrast, the Fish and Wildlife Service specifically precludes SSA teams from making such determinations, and under the Trump administration, requires state representation on the teams. Allowing states onto these teams further injects politics into the process since many state leaders oppose endangered species protections.