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When President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, he congratulated Congress “for taking this important step toward protecting a heritage which we hold in trust to countless future generations of our fellow citizens.” The Bush administration is refusing to protect that heritage by denying imperiled wildlife populations the act’s protections.

To date, the administration has not added a single species to the endangered species list without first being ordered to do so by a court. They also have rewritten protections – against the recommendations of their own scientists – which threaten to remove many endangered species from the list.

Here in the Northwest, two recent decisions by the National Marine Fisheries Service threaten to eliminate two of the region’s most cherished species: the orca whales in Puget Sound and the Pacific Salmon.

In 2002, the National Marine Fisheries Service refused to place the orca whales on the endangered species list, even though they have declined by 20 percent over a five-year period beginning in 1996. These whales will become extinct if the decline continues.

The Fisheries Service’s own scientific experts determined that this orca whale population was genetically distinct and unique to Puget Sound. But the agency disregarded the scientific review and denied the orcas protection because orcas would continue to exist elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The agency also held out the hope that other orcas might re-colonize to Puget Sound—even though the last evidence of re-colonization is from the last Ice Age.

Thankfully in December 2003, a federal district judge reversed this decision saying the agency “ignored its own experts’ conclusions that the global taxon is inaccurate” and that no scientific evidence supports the hope that other orcas might fill the gap left by extinction of these whales. The Fisheries Service will have another chance to make a listing decision next December. Meanwhile, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Canadian government have protected this orca population under their endangered species laws.

The Fisheries Service followed a similar course when reconsidering the protections for Pacific salmon. Developers and property rights groups have been trying to eliminate Endangered Species Act listings of salmon on the theory that we can produce as many salmon as we need in hatcheries. Never mind that the rivers may be too degraded for the salmon to reproduce and survive on their own.

In September 2001, a federal district court ruled in favor of a property rights organization on narrow legal grounds and ordered the agency to reconsider how it handles the hatchery fish. The Bush administration did not appeal, but instead decided to revisit the 26 salmon listings up and down the west coast.

Initially, heeding agency scientists, the Fisheries Service announced in the summer of 2002 that it would continue to protect wild salmon based on their declining population numbers. Then a new political appointee entered the scene. Mark Rutzick, a former timber industry lawyer who had urged the administration to delist wild salmon, became a special assistant in the Commerce Department with significant responsibility over salmon policies.

Last month, a new draft policy surfaced that, for the first time, would count hatchery fish and treat the hatchery’s concrete pools as extensions of natural rivers in deciding whether wild salmon need protection. The Fisheries Service’s regional administrator, Bob Lohn, explained the shift: “Just as natural habitat provides a place for fish to spawn and rear, also hatcheries can do that.” In his words, “a salmon population could be removed from endangered species protection even if it requires ongoing, multimillion-dollar hatcheries to survive.”

A few weeks earlier, six leading marine scientists who had been hired as government consultants on salmon recovery published contrary views in the journal Science. The Fisheries Service told the scientists to eliminate portions of a report concluding that hatchery fish impede wild salmon survival and recovery and recommending that policy focus on ensuring self-sustaining populations of naturally spawning salmon.

One of the scientists, Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said, “One hundred years of hatcheries have not brought back wild Atlantic salmon to Maine. Once we lose the wild populations of salmon and the natural habitats that support them, we will never get them back.” Another of the scientists, Simon Levin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, added, “Just because you have captive breeding programs doesn’t mean salmon are restored. If you have animals in the zoo, you don’t call the natural populations restored.”

The Bush administration is finding excuses for avoiding protection of habitat. Their manipulation of scientific evidence and deference to industry interests in devising new ways to deny endangered species protection is unprecedented and certainly a departure from the act’s bipartisan history.

In the words of President Nixon, “[n]othing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.” Rather than protect this heritage for our children, this administration is cutting corners on species protection at every turn.

Patti Goldman is the managing attorney for the Northwest Office of Earthjustice, which is working to protect salmon, orca whales, and the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest and is fighting rollbacks of environmental protections that have benefited that region.

To learn more about the Bush administration’s suppression of scientific information, read “Politics over Science,” in a new report by the Center for American Progress and OMB Watch.

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