Lawsuit Filed Challenging Improper Bush-Era Removal of Endangered Species Protection for Sacramento Splittail

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

Lawsuit Filed Challenging Improper Bush-Era Removal of Endangered Species Protection for Sacramento Splittail

SAN FRANCISCO - The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a lawsuit challenging a
politically tainted decision by the Bush administration to strip the Sacramento
splittail, an imperiled fish species native to the Central Valley and San
Francisco Bay-Delta, of Endangered Species Act protections - a 2003 decision
engineered by disgraced former Bush administration official Julie MacDonald. The
lawsuit is part of a larger campaign on the part of the Center for Biological
Diversity to undo Bush-administration decisions that weakened protections for
dozens of endangered species.

"The Bush
administration regularly put industry interests over conservation and let
politics dictate endangered species decisions, but the delisting of the
splittail was one of the most outrageous cases of political interference,
manipulation of science, and blatant conflict of interest," said Jeff Miller,
conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Three
investigations by the inspector general and a report by the Government
Accountability Office to Congress concluded that Julie MacDonald illegally
tampered with the splittail listing decision."

"It should
be a no-brainer for the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration
to clean up this shameful relict of the Bush legacy and again protect the
splittail," said Miller. "The splittail has severely declined since delisting;
federal protection is needed to prevent the extinction of splittail and other
native fish species that share its habitat in the Delta and Central Valley."

Conservation
groups petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the splittail in 1992 and the Fish and Wildlife
Service proposed listing the species in 1994. The agency delayed listing until a
Center lawsuit and court order forced the Service to take action. In 1999 the
splittail was listed as a threatened species. After litigation by water agencies
challenging the listing, a court ordered the Service to review the status of the
splittail. In 2003 the Service removed the splittail from the threatened list
despite strong consensus by agency scientists and fisheries experts that it
should retain its protected status.

The
delisting decision, which expressly ignored the most recent splittail population
trend studies, was overseen by Bush administration official Julie MacDonald,
former deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the Department
of the Interior. MacDonald resigned in disgrace following a scathing misconduct investigation
by the Interior Department's inspector general revealing the depths of her
corruption. MacDonald, who owned an 80-acre farm in the Yolo Bypass - a
floodplain that is key habitat for the splittail - edited the splittail decision
in a manner that appeared to benefit her financial interests. Two subsequent
inspector general investigations concluded that MacDonald should have recused
herself from the listing review process, and that she edited and interfered with
the scientific data used in the decision.

Background

The
Sacramento splittail (Pogonichthys
macrolepidotus
) is a minnow native to the upper San Francisco Estuary and
the Central Valley. Splittail are primarily
freshwater fish but can tolerate moderately salty water. They are found mostly
in slow-moving marshy sections of rivers and dead-end sloughs, though
floodplains are important for spawning. The splittail once occurred in lakes and
rivers throughout the Central Valley as far north as Redding on the Sacramento
River and as far south as the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, as well as in
the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Massive water diversions and alteration
of important spawning and rearing habitat have driven the species to near
extinction. Formerly common in the Sacramento,
San Joaquin, Feather, and American rivers, the splittail is extirpated from all
but a fraction of its former range and now is largely restricted to the Delta,
Suisun
Bay, Suisun Marsh, and Napa
Marsh.

The
splittail is estimated to be only 35 to 60 percent as abundant in the Delta as
it was in 1940, and the percentage decline over the species' historic range is
much greater. Splittail numbers in the Delta have declined steadily since 1980,
and in 1992 numbers declined to the lowest on record. Although population levels
appear to fluctuate widely from year to year based on freshwater outflow, since
the 2003 delisting of the species available data (2003-2007) shows splittail
abundance has dropped to low levels for five consecutive years. The remnant
populations of splittail in the Delta require adequate freshwater outflow and
periodic floodplain inundation to thrive. Splittail are threatened by
unsustainable water diversions, the effects of dams, wetlands habitat loss,
pesticide impacts, and predation and competition by introduced
species.

The
manipulation of science for the benefit of private interests reached new heights
at the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Bush administration. By suppressing,
twisting, and ignoring information from its own biologists, the administration
illegally removed or withheld Endangered Species Act protections for numerous
species. In many cases, government and university scientists carefully
documented the unauthorized editing of scientific documents, the overruling of scientific experts, and the
falsification of economic analyses. Many of the illegal decisions were
engineered by MacDonald.

The Center
kicked off a Cleaning up the Bush Legacy Campaign in 2007, seeking to reinstate protections for 60 imperiled species and more than
8 million acres of habitat wrongly denied federal protection because of
political interference. The campaign has already met with significant success:
in response to Center lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to redo
critical habitat designations for 19 species and reconsidered listing the rare,
highly imperiled Mexican garter snake as an
endangered.

Unsustainable
water diversions from the Delta have caused the collapse of many fish runs in
the Delta and Central Valley. Since
2002, delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, Sacramento splittail, and striped bass have declined
catastrophically and the state's largest salmon run of Central Valley fall-run
chinook is suffering from record decline, forcing cancellation of commercial and
recreational salmon fishing in California for the second straight year. White
and green sturgeon numbers in San
Francisco Bay and the
Sacramento River have also fallen to alarmingly
low levels. The southern green sturgeon population was federally listed as
threatened in 2006.

Because
federal and state agencies have so mismanaged the Bay-Delta, California's largest and
most important estuary, courts and federal agencies have begun to order changes
in water export operations to protect fish populations. In 2007, an Alameda County court ruled that the California
Department of Water Resources had been illegally pumping water out of the Delta
without a permit to kill delta smelt and other fish species listed under the
California Endangered Species Act. A federal court also rejected a federal
"biological opinion" allowing high water exports and ordered reduced Delta
pumping. In 2008, a federal judge invalidated a water plan that would have
allowed more pumping from the Delta at the expense of protected salmon and
steelhead trout. Earlier this year the National
Marine Fisheries Service determined that pumping operations of the Central
Valley Project jeopardize the
long-term survival of winter and spring-run Chinook salmon, green
sturgeon, Central Valley steelhead, and orcas
that feed on the salmon, and mandated a 5-7% reduction in Delta water exports to
save salmon.

More
information on the Sacramento splittail

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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