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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."

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