A closer look at Obama's judges, federal agencies, and his approach to science and secrecy

  • The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a "threatened" species in 2008, and last year, pressured by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, the Obama administration designated 120 million acres of critical habitat -- mostly sea ice. Regardless, climate change is shrinking the sea ice. Some environmentalists say this administration missed an opportunity to bring the discussion of climate change to the forefront when it declined to upgrade the listing from threatened to endangered.

    Martha de Jong-Lantink, cc via Flickr
  • Energy Secretary Steven Chu makes a presentation on “Building a Sustainable Energy Future” in December at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún.

    Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
  • Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (right) and U. S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., listen to public comments at a meeting on healthy forests in Deer Lodge, Montana, last March.

    USDA
 

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Fish and Wildlife Service

Background The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within the Interior Department, manages 150 million acres of wildlife refuges, fish hatcheries and conservation wetlands. It also determines whether to list species as endangered or threatened and works with local governments to enforce laws. Its staff of nearly 10,000 had a $2.6 billion budget in 2010.

The struggle A series of Inspector General investigations from 2004 to 2008 revealed a "culture of fear" within Interior, especially at Fish and Wildlife, where Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald "bullied, insulted and harassed the professional staff ... to change documents and later biological reporting."

H. Dale Hall, the Bush appointee who ran the agency from 2005 on, confirms that the "reports were pretty accurate," and says he pressured MacDonald to cease tampering with science. MacDonald quit after an ethics scandal in 2007, but in 2008, the IG found the "enormous policy void" that MacDonald exploited had remained through several administrations.

Obama appointed a 30-year agency veteran, Sam Hamilton, to succeed Hall, but he suffered a fatal heart attack in February 2010. Then Obama took 10 months to nominate a new director, Dan Ashe, a second-generation Fish and Wildlife veteran who seems to be what science-lovers hoped for. "He led the push for greater scientific integrity in this agency," according to spokesman Chris Tollefson. "That he's been nominated is an encouraging sign to many people."

On the horizon Tollefson says that within the next year the agency intends to "engage the public to find solutions" to the hobbled endangered species program, where there's a backlog of listings (more than 250 species wait in the queue) and constant lawsuits for and against listings. Since 2007, environmentalists have also filed petitions seeking a huge increase in critical habitat designations for more than 1,200 species.

Controversial court rulings about wolves have increased the political pressure to reform or weaken the Endangered Species Act. Hall, now CEO of Ducks Unlimited, is among those who contend that something needs to be done legislatively: "We've had a virtual Ph.D. program in (the law's) ambiguities -- administered to us by the courts."

by Judith Lewis Mernit

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Obama’s record on Western environmental issues
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