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New Rule on Endangered Species in the Southwest

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/24/national/24species.html?th&emc=th New Rule on Endangered Species in the Southwest By FELICITY BARRINGER Published: May 24,
    Message 1 of 1 , May 24, 2005
      http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/24/national/24species.html?th&emc=th

      New Rule on Endangered Species in the Southwest

      By FELICITY BARRINGER
      Published: May 24, 2005

      WASHINGTON, May 23 - The southwestern regional
      director of the United States Fish and Wildlife
      Service has instructed members of his staff to limit
      their use of the latest scientific studies on the
      genetics of endangered plants and animals when
      deciding how best to preserve and recover them.

      At issue is what happens once a fish, animal, plant or
      bird is included on the federal endangered species
      list as being in danger of extinction and needing
      protection.

      Dale Hall, the director of the southwestern region, in
      a memorandum dated Jan. 27, said that all decisions
      about how to return a species to robust viability must
      use only the genetic science in place at the time it
      was put on the endangered species list - in some cases
      the 1970's or earlier - even if there have been
      scientific advances in understanding the genetic
      makeup of a species and its subgroups in the ensuing
      years.

      His instructions can spare states in his region the
      expense of extensive recovery efforts. Arizona
      officials responsible for the recovery of Apache
      trout, for example, argue that the money - $2 million
      to $3 million in the past five years - spent on
      ensuring the survival of each genetic subgroup of the
      trout was misdirected, since the species as a whole
      was on its way to recovery.

      In his memorandum, Mr. Hall built upon a federal court
      ruling involving Oregon Coast coho salmon. The judge
      in that case said that because there was no basic
      genetic distinction between hatchery fish and their
      wild cousins, both had to be counted when making a
      determination that the fish was endangered.

      In the policy discussion attached to his memorandum,
      Mr. Hall wrote, "genetic differences must be
      addressed" when a species is declared endangered.
      Thereafter, he said, "there can be no further
      subdivision of the entity because of genetics or any
      other factor" unless the government goes through the
      time-consuming process of listing the subspecies as a
      separate endangered species.

      The regional office, in Albuquerque, covers Arizona,
      Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

      Mr. Hall's memorandum prompted dissent within the
      agency. Six weeks later, his counterpart at the
      mountain-prairie regional office, in Denver, sent a
      sharp rebuttal to Mr. Hall.

      "Knowing if populations are genetically isolated or
      where gene flow is restricted can assist us in
      identifying recovery units that will ensure that a
      species will persist over time," the regional
      director, Ralph O. Morgenweck, wrote. "It can also
      ensure that unique adaptations that may be essential
      for future survival continue to be maintained in the
      species."

      Mr. Hall's policy, he wrote, "could run counter to the
      purpose of the Endangered Species Act" and "may
      contradict our direction to use the best available
      science in endangered species decisions in some
      cases."

      One retired biologist for the southwestern office,
      Sally Stefferud, suggested in a telephone interview
      that the issue went beyond the question of whether to
      consider modern genetics.

      "That's a major issue, of course," Ms. Stefferud said.
      "But I think there's more behind it. It's a move to
      make it easier" to take away a species's endangered
      status, she said. That would make it easier for
      officials to approve actions - like construction,
      logging or commercial fishing - that could reduce a
      species's number.

      Mr. Hall was on vacation and not available for comment
      Monday. Mr. Morgenweck could not be reached late
      Monday afternoon, but his assistant confirmed he had
      sent the rebuttal.

      The memorandums were provided by the Center for
      Biological Diversity and Public Employees for
      Environmental Responsibility, two groups that opposed
      Mr. Hall's policy. They said that species whose
      recovery could be impeded by the policy included the
      Gila trout and the Apache trout.

      Mr. Hall's ruling fits squarely into the theory
      advanced by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a
      property-rights group in California, that endangered
      species be considered as one genetic unit for purposes
      of being put on the endangered species list and in
      subsequent management plans.

      In an e-mail message on Monday, Russ Brooks, the
      lawyer who worked on the Oregon case for the
      foundation, wrote, "Having read the memo, I can say
      that I agree with it."

      Bruce Taubert, the assistant director for wildlife
      management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department,
      said of the new policy, "We support it," adding, in
      the case of the endangered Apache trout, "Why should
      we spend an incredible amount of time and money to do
      something with that species if it doesn't add to the
      viability and longevity of the species that was
      listed?"

      "By not having to worry about small genetic pools, we
      can do these things faster and better," Mr. Taubert
      said.

      But Philip Hedrick, a professor of population genetics
      at Arizona State University, said that it made no
      sense to ignore scientific advances in his field.
      "Genetics and evolutionary thinking have to be
      incorporated if we're going to talk about long-term
      sustainability of these species," he said. "Maybe in
      the short term you can have a few animals closely
      related and inbred out there, but for them to survive
      in any long-term sense you have to think about this
      long-term picture that conservation biologists have
      come up with over the last 25 years."

      Professor Hedrick added that cutting off new genetic
      findings that fell short of providing evidence that a
      separate species had evolved was "completely
      inappropriate, because as everyone knows, we're able
      to know a lot more than we did five years ago."

      He added, "They talk about using the best science, but
      that's clearly not what they're trying to do here."

      In a telephone interview from the Albuquerque fish and
      wildlife office, Larry Bell, a spokesman, said that
      Mr. Hall's interpretation meant that "the only thing
      that we have to consider in recovery is: does the
      species exist?"

      "We don't have to consider whether various adaptive
      portions of a species exist," he said.

      Asked about why an Oregon ruling would have an impact
      on policies in the southwest, he said: "My belief is
      that because it's the only court decision that
      addresses the issue of genetics. While we're not
      within this region bound by the Oregon decision per
      se, it would provide guidance."
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