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Know the West

Frozen in time: Endangered species science

  If scientists have learned anything new about the genetics of rare species in the past three decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may not want to hear about it.

In January, H. Dale Hall, the Service’s Region 2 director, released a new policy for developing recovery plans for rare species: Scientists are to use only the genetic information available at the time a species was first protected under the Endangered Species Act. To make use of new genetic data, writes Hall, would be "inappropriate and inconsistent" with the law.

Hall’s decision is based on a 2001 federal court ruling by Judge Michael Hogan that wild coho salmon are not genetically distinct from hatchery coho salmon. In response, NOAA Fisheries, the agency charged with protection of the fish, removed Oregon’s coastal coho from the endangered species list (HCN, 10/8/01: Coho salmon lose federal protection).

Not everyone agrees with the new policy: In a March 11 letter to Hall, Ralph Morgenweck, the Service’s Region 6 director, expressed concern that the new policy "could run counter to the purpose of the Endangered Species Act" and "may contradict our direction to use the best available science."

Jeff Curtis, Western conservation director for Trout Unlimited in Portland, says of Hogan’s coho decision: "What we have found is that people use Hogan to justify doing things that Hogan doesn’t require." He adds, "Rather than using the bureaucracy to expand (its) areas of discretion to protect endangered species, (the Service is) trying to limit (its) areas of discretion."

This isn’t the first time Hall’s office has limited its own ability to protect endangered species: In 2003, after a federal court ruled the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had "discretion" to release water in the Middle Rio Grande for the endangered silvery minnow, the Service reversed its earlier stance and backed the Bureau’s decision to let the river run dry (HCN, 8/4/03: Truce remains elusive in Rio Grande water fight).