New Rule on Endangered Species in the Southwest
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
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
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
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
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
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
"By not having to worry about small genetic pools, we
can do these things faster and better," Mr. Taubert
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
"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."