Summary of Hearings on the Endangered Species Act (5-14-2007)

  • May, 09, 2007: House Natural Resources Committee hearing on "Endangered Species Act implementation: Science or Politics?"

House Natural Resources Committee hearing on "Endangered Species Act implementation: Science or Politics?"
May 09, 2007

Panel I
The Honorable P. Lynn Scarlett, Deputy Secretary, Department of the Interior
Ms. Jamie Rappaport Clark, Executive Vice President, Defenders of Wildlife
Dr. Francesca Grifo, Ph.D., Senior Scientist and Director of Scientific Integrity Program, Union of Concerned Scientists
Mr. Jeff Ruch, Executive Director, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
Panel II
Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., Executive Director, National Center for Conservation Science & Policy
Ms. Judith Rodd, Director, Friends of Blackwater
Mr. John Young, Retired Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mr. William P. Horn, Birch, Horton, Bittner, & Cherot
Dr. Matthew Cronin, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Palmer Research Center

On May 9, 2007, the House Natural Resources Committee convened to discuss the implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The original ESA is part of U.S. Code, Title 16, Chapter 35. It was passed by Congress in 1973, and is intended to not only protect endangered species, but also "the ecosystems on which they depend." The Senate and House are both currently working on ESA Reform acts (S. 658 and H.R. 1422, respectively), although neither was mentioned at the hearing. The conflict between protecting endangered wildlife and promoting economic development was discussed, at times contentiously. Committee Chair Nick Rahall (D-WV) voiced his enthusiasm for continuing to protect endangered species as well as his distaste for the current administration's practices. He stated his belief that the Bush administration, for all of its talk of a "culture of life," shows "flagrant lack of regard for the work of the Creator's hand," and went as far as to say the administration shows a "sad and irresponsible mission to undercut endangered species." He posed the challenge of implementing the ESA "enlightened by science," rather than "entangled in politics." Similarly, Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), expressed his opinion that the current administration is "basically repeating everything done by the Bush I administration in an attempt to provide favors to industry."

Ranking member Don Young (R-AK) raised concerns about the ESA impeding economic development. He mentioned that he voted for the original ESA, which he described as "the worst vote [he] ever made, because we were misled." He expressed regret that the ESA has stood in the way of human development and prevented domestic oil production which could lesson dependence on foreign oil. "Let us not forget the human factor," he said, implying that protection of polar bears and beluga whales in Alaska has hurt human quality of life, with "no science, no study" behind the protections. Representative William Sali (R-ID) described the ESA as a "weapon to stop or limit development in this country." He noted enforcement of the law has hurt the economy and infringed on personal property rights.

Jamie Clark, of Defenders of Wildlife, noted the damage done by political appointees who "undermine the scientific integrity" of various government programs. "No one is arguing that science alone should dictate policy," she surmised, "but science is the foundation upon which policy depends." She commented that state and local governments are being forced to carry more of the burden of implementation of the ESA, but are ill-equipped to do so. Dr. Grifo, a biologist and Director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, also commented that the pressure to alter scientific reports for political purposes is pervasive. She suggested increasing transparency within government programs, to "expose manipulation of science." Similarly, Jeff Ruch, the Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, argued that "political manipulation is now widely corrupting ESA science."

When asked about science manipulation, Lynn Scarlett, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior, answered, "we do not promote suppression of scientific information." Lynn faced harsh criticism from several Representatives for her handling of the scandal involving Julie MacDonald. MacDonald was appointed by President Bush in 2002 as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior, but resigned on May 1, 2007, after the Union for Concerned Scientists claimed that she "personally reversed scientific findings, changed scientific conclusions to prevent endangered species from receiving protection, removed relevant information from a scientific document, and ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt her edits." Much of the hearing focused on ethical concerns in the wake of the MacDonald scandal.

George Miller (D-CA) asked about MacDonald's alleged land ownership in the Sacramento Valley that may have led her to tell scientist to reduce the reported nesting range of an endangered bird from 2.1 miles to 1.8 miles, and whether Scarlett had looked through other decisions MacDonald had made to ensure accuracy. Scarlett responded that she has "not reviewed [MacDonald's] decisions," and "where there is evidence of science manipulation, we want to correct that." Miller showed great concern, voicing his belief that "this is a serious, serious ethical and legal problem for the department." Lynn reassured Congressman Miller that MacDonald strived to do good reviewing, but Miller was unconvinced by her reassurances.

Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA) also expressed deep concern for the MacDonald scandal, as it involved land in his district. He noted that mapped recovery areas for the northern spotted owl were eliminated under MacDonald, based on manipulated scientific data. Addressing Scarlett, he said, "under your leadership we have gotten negligence… a fish rots from its head." After being left dissatisfied with her answers, Inslee called for Scarlett's resignation.

Representative Sali questioned Grifo about a scientifically acceptable rate at which species should be allowed to become extinct, pointing out that fossil records show that a large number of species have become extinct. Grifo explained that past rates of extinction have occurred on "geologic time scales," at a much slower rate than current extinctions. She cited human involvement including habitat destruction as reasons for the high rate of extinction.

Representative Steve Pearce (R-NM) mentioned a wolf program that has been causing problems for livestock. Many of these wolves were being moved from populated areas of Arizona, and re-introduced into New Mexico. He suggested releasing these wolves in New York City's Central Park or on the Mall in Washington, DC. He also warned that scientists can change data in order to support their political purposes, citing data fixing by a group of scientists working on lynx habitats. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) also raised concerns about the impression that science never varies, stating that scientists could manipulate data just as easily as politicians could. He asked Dr. Grifo if several different scientists could look at the same data set and come up with different conclusions. Grifo responded affirmatively, but indicated that this was the purpose of peer review and scientific meetings.

Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) mentioned a recent memo from the Department of the Interior that states anyone approved for travel from the Fish and Wildlife Service was not to talk about polar bear habitat destruction. Scarlett responded that the memo was simply intended to say that the topic of a certain meeting was not climate change; it was not intended to be a gag order. Jeff Ruch showed concern for this type of gag order, saying "Scientists have almost no legal protection. They are not whistle blowers; they are not trying to go on 60 Minutes." Representative Holt noted that "the politicization of science and the disparaging of scientifically trained staff is a critical issue." Until guidelines can be put into place by the Department of the Interior to keep the science pure and the politics honest, implementation of the Endangered Species Act will continue to be mired in controversy.


Sources: Hearing testimony.

Contributed by Paul Schramm, 2007 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern

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Last updated on May 14, 2007.