Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

An air tanker drops fire retardant on a fire in the Sierra National Forest in California. The chemical was ruled unsafe to certain species by the Fish and Wildlife Service. (Photo: USDA/flickr/cc)

How an Agency Charged with Protecting Endangered Animals Ignored Them Instead

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service did not intervene in thousands of environmentally harmful projects, new analysis shows

Nadia Prupis

Since 2008, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has consistently refused to intervene in tens of thousands of projects considered potentially harmful to endangered animals, a new analysis by a conservation group published Monday reveals.

Defenders of Wildlife looked at an internal FWS assessment on the impact of more than 88,000 development projects on animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. FWS, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is required under the act's Section 7 to ensure federal projects are not likely to "jeopardize" or "destroy or adversely modify" a species or habitat.

Not one project was halted under those guidelines.

"The Endangered Species Act includes a basic, common sense, look-before-you-leap requirement: federal agencies must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that their proposed actions won’t threaten a listed species’ survival," said Ya-Wei Li, senior director of the group's Endangered Species Conservation project and a co-author of the study.

"While our findings should lay to rest the unfounded claims by ESA-opponents that the act is destroying jobs and the economy, the study raises significant questions as to why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has virtually ceased finding that any projects threaten a species’ survival," Li said. It also "dispel[s] the myth that the Endangered Species Act blocks projects and kills jobs across the country."

The results also show that the FWS's hands-off approach has strengthened over time. As the Guardian reports, "A tally from 1991 shows that there were 350 'jeopardy judgements' out of 73,560 previous consultations, compared with the two adverse outcomes in 80,000 cases over the past seven years."

The FWS intervened in a plan to use fire retardant in California, which was found potentially harmful to some species and may now only be used in designated zones, and restricted a plan to divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which threatened the endangered smelt.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the FWS can only regulate the "surface" of the habitats it oversees. That means private entities who own the land those habitats sit on have the legal standing to exploit it for resources. More than 100 wildlife refuges around the country have been converted into oil and gas drilling sites under that rule, the Guardian added.

As Li explained, "The Service [is] culturally less inclined to rock the boat. We need to take a step back and consider whether section seven is adequately protecting our species."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'On Her Way Home': WNBA Star Brittney Griner Freed in US-Russia Prisoner Swap

"Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner," said U.S. President Joe Biden. "She is safe. She is on a plane."

Jessica Corbett ·

Historic Offshore Wind Lease Sale in California Gets Over $750 Million in Winning Bids

"If we build on today's forward momentum, the United States can dramatically reduce its global warming emissions and become a global leader in renewable energy technologies like deep-water offshore wind."

Brett Wilkins ·

Solidarity Fund Up and Running for Designer Behind Iconic Bernie Sanders Posters

Tyler Evans "has dedicated his life to the progressive movement," says the GoFundMe created for the hospitalized designer. "Now it's our time to have Tyler's back when he and his family need it most."

Jessica Corbett ·

Journalism Defenders Push for Passage of 'Game-Changing' PRESS Act

"The PRESS Act is the most important free press legislation in modern times because it would finally stop the government from spying on journalists and threatening them with arrest for doing their jobs," explained one advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·

New York Times Union Workers Planning Dec. 8 Walkout, Rally Over Pay

"Our collective action is working: Management backed off its attempt to kill our pension and agreed to expand fertility benefits," the union said of ongoing talks. "But management still barely budged on some of our most important priorities."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo