Consultation process lacks critical oversight -- GAO

The Fish and Wildlife Service has no established way to track cumulative threats or injuries to most of the imperiled species the agency is attempting to protect, according to a new report from federal investigators.

The Government Accountability Office found that FWS lacks a systematic way to track required monitoring reports or the harm to or death of protected species. Instead, the agency relies on individual biologists to maintain crucial species information -- meaning the retirement or loss of a biologist could be disastrous for the agency and the species it protects.

The report illuminates holes in the agency's oversight of the consultation process, which is considered key to protecting threatened and endangered species.

When a plant or animal is protected under the Endangered Species Act, the law requires federal agencies to consult with FWS biologists over the potential harm a planned project, such as a road or dam, could have on the species.

The consultation rules have been in the spotlight over the past year, as the Bush administration advanced a rule in its final months that would have made the consultations optional. Capitol Hill Democrats, environmental groups and wildlife biologists decried the move, and the Obama administration threw out the rule last month.


GAO found that FWS biologists do not have a system to track the cumulative take of most listed species or the monitoring reports that are required as part of the consultations.

At field offices that GAO visited, FWS biologists could not find monitoring reports for 63 percent of species that required them. FWS staff said that they gave priority to new consultation requests and often did not have time to follow up on monitoring reports. The results, according to GAO, are incomplete information about how species react to the actions under consultation and gaps in the agency's "institutional knowledge."

When a consultation occurs, FWS biologists can approve a project that may "take" -- harm or kill -- a listed species, as long as it does not pose a threat to the species' overall recovery. But GAO found that the agency has no formal way to track those cumulative takes for most species -- which may have a habitat and range that go beyond one office or biologist.

Of the 497 listed species in the Western states, federal investigators found only three that have a formal database for tracking cumulative take. FWS biologists developed Web-based tools to track harm to the northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet and bull trout -- mostly as a result of litigation over the species.

Service biologists have also developed their own informal ways to track the cumulative take of seven other species, but they may not include all relevant consultations or information, according to the report.

For example, one biologist has developed her own spreadsheet to track the cumulative take for the threatened Mexican spotted owl, which has a range across four states that includes Utah and Colorado. Other FWS biologists send her information from biological opinions so she can input information on what kind of harms are anticipated, but data on the actual take are often not available.

GAO recommended that the agency develop a simple method to track monitoring reports and cumulative take -- such as adding an additional field in an online database that already exists for species.

In a brief letter replying to the report, acting Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Will Shafroth wrote that the department agreed with the report's findings and recommendations.

House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), one of the lawmakers who received the report, said it shows the ongoing neglect of the consultation process under the Bush administration.

"The new leadership at the Department of the Interior gives me hope that the GAO recommendations will be implemented to strengthen America's conservation law," Rahall said.

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