Washington, DC — A new U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service policy forbidding its biologists from using wildlife genetics to protect and aid recovery of endangered and threatened species has set off a firestorm of criticism both inside and outside the agency. The January 27, 2005 policy issued by the Southwest Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Dale Hall, prohibits agency biologists from considering unique genetic lineages in protecting or recovering wildlife in danger of extinction.
In a March 11, 2005 letter, Ralph Morgenweck, the FWS Mountain-Prairie Regional Director, wrote to Hall sharply rebuking the policy for contradicting the purposes of the Endangered Species Act and running counter to best available science, stating:
“I have concerns that the policy could run counter to the purpose of the Endangered Species Act to recover the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend. It also may contradict our direction to use the best available science in endangered species decisions in some cases.”
In his letter, Morgenweck cites several examples where genetic diversity has been critical to species’ survival because it allows wildlife to adapt to emerging threats, diseases and changing conditions.
“Hall’s policy is a clear attempt to irresponsibly rollback endangered species protections by hamstringing agency scientists,” stated John Horning of Forest Guardians. “Hall is trying to destroy the vital safety net the Endangered Species Act provides for native wildlife and fish on the brink of extinction.”
By prohibiting consideration of individual or unique populations, Hall’s policy will allow FWS to declare wildlife species secure based on the status of any single population. This would allow the agency to pronounce species recovered even if a majority of populations were on the brink of extinction, or allow the agency to approve development projects that extirpate individual populations.
“If Dale Hall were in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service, species
would be considered secure and recovered even if the only surviving members
were found in zoos,” stated Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with
the Center for Biological Diversity. “Hall’s policy is a departure
from good science and undermines key protections for the nation’s wildlife.”
In recent months, FWS has come under increasing criticism for allowing its scientific conclusions to be altered for political reasons. A recent survey of FWS employees by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that more than in any other region, agency biologists in the Southwest have been subjected to political interference, with nearly half of the respondents working under Hall reporting being “directed, for non-scientific reasons to refrain from making” findings protective of wildlife.
“Dale Hall’s ban on using genetic factors is yet another attempt to politically short-circuit science to achieve pre-determined, pro-development results,” said PEER Program Director Rebecca Roose, noting that Hall’s policy would directly affect several recovery plans now under development in the Southwest. “Telling biologists not to consider genetic factors is like telling engineers they cannot use mathematics.”