A large group of prominent scientists is asking Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to withdraw legal guidance that would change how agencies decide whether a species is endangered.
Harvard's Edward O. Wilson, Duke's Stuart Pimm and 36 other scientists sent the letter Monday to Kempthorne and the House and Senate committees with oversight of endangered species.
At issue is guidance issued last month that redefines when the Fish and Wildlife Service would protect a species as "endangered" or "threatened."
Interior Solicitor David Bernhardt issued the guidance that recommends agencies focus on plants and animals most at risk in their current locations, rather than throughout their historic range or in other locations where species may be healthy.
The memo gets at the heart of the definition of an endangered species: The Endangered Species Act requires protection of any species in "danger of extinction throughout all or a portion of its range."
The scientists are concerned the opinion would reduce protection to those plants and animals at risk of extinction, leaving behind others and ruling out the expansion of species' current range.
"It is clear that Congress intended 'range' to be the historic or former range of the animal," said John Vucetich, an ecology professor at Michigan Technological University. "That makes the act restorative and very powerful."
The letter states: "To side with this opinion is to side against logic, the moral commitments of the American people, the species that the Endangered Species Act is intended to protect and congressional intent."
The guidance was written to respond to the department's losing record in court on its previous interpretation of species' range. A group of career Interior lawyers contributed to the guidance and all signed onto the document.
"This will help us conserve species by allowing us to focus limited resources on areas where they are actually in trouble, rather than areas where they are not in trouble," Interior spokesman Hugh Vickery said today.
Resignation fails to quell controversy
The resignation this week of Julie MacDonald, a high-ranking Interior political appointee charged with ethics violations and doctoring scientific information, failed to soothe environmentalists and scientists who say the department has deeper-seeded problems with political interference.
MacDonald, who oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service and endangered species, resigned Monday as deputy assistant secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (E&ENews PM, May 1).
Environmentalists applauded her departure but questioned whether it would clean up what they see as a larger problem at Interior. Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity called MacDonald the "administration's attack dog, not its general."
"We welcome Julie MacDonald's resignation," said Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But she represents a much larger problem of widespread political interference at federal agencies."
MacDonald was the subject of a scathing report last month from Interior's Office of Inspector General that found she had violated at least two aspects of federal code. The report says she used her post to intervene in endangered species listings and critical habitat decisions and sent information to third parties so they could use it to challenge the service in court.
Environmentalists are also questioning if MacDonald or other officials had a hand in a lawsuit by the timber industry that cited draft regulatory ESA changes before they were leaked to the press. Earthjustice filed a lawsuit Monday to intervene in the case against Interior.
At issue is the American Forest Resource Council lawsuit in early March aimed at forcing FWS to delist the marbled murrelet. Part of the suit cited draft regulations that became public late that month.
"The Bush administration's draft regulations gutting the Endangered Species Act haven't even been publicly proposed yet, but the timber industry is already trying to strip the nation's wildlife of protection," Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles said.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.