What happened: Federal scientists were sidelined by the Trump administration when carrying out a scientific review on the risks to endangered wildlife from a California water project.
Why it matters: By politicizing a process to assess whether endangered and threatened species are jeopardized by a governmental project, officials politicized a science-based process and undermined the ability of governmental agencies to protect endangered and threatened species in California.
Political officials worked to sideline a scientific review by federal scientists examining the potential determinantal impacts on endangered species from a California water project. Specifically, federal scientists were assessing a California water management plan in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region. The water management plan attempted to strike a science-based balance between the use of the water for agricultural irrigation purposes and keeping the water in the delta to protect endangered aquatic species, like the Chinook salmon. According to 350 pages of emails, memos, and meeting notes filed in federal court, scientists and regulators from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) were deeply concerned that political officials from the Trump administration were politically interfering in a scientific assessment.
Under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, FWS and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are required to carry out a scientific assessment, called a biological opinion, to determine whether governmental projects are likely to cause great harm to endangered or threatened species. If the biological opinion determines that the action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of endangered or threatened species or will result in adverse consequences to their critical habitat – known as a jeopardy opinion – it requires that the proposed action be modified to prevent this outcome. During a meeting in May 2019, Paul Souza, a regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told federal scientists and regulators that the “goal” the scientific review was “no J,” which refers to a jeopardy opinion. “That is the objective,” Souza said, “and the schedule does not allow time for a J.”
Two weeks after this meeting, Maria Rea, a NMFS senior policy adviser, wrote an email to her boss stating that the Department of the Interior (DOI) was preventing her from sending scientific data out for peer review, a common practice among scientists which helps ensure that scientific information is robust and accurate. The action caused Rea to “re-read NOAAs scientific integrity policy” to ensure that peer review processes were protected under the policy. Rea wrote, “I think for the DOI to dictate what NMFS can or cannot send to peer review definitely raises a flag with respect to scientific integrity.”
When NMFS scientists finished the scientific assessment, they issued a jeopardy opinion. They determined that the California water management plan would likely prove harmful to the endangered and threatened Chinook salmon and steelhead, in addition to endangered killer whales that depend on these fish species for their food supply. FWS regional director Paul Souza dismissed the entire report and ordered a rewrite of the biological opinion, which we previously considered an attack on science.
Endangered species are species whose populations are at the brink of collapse and possibly extinction. Therefore, it is vitally important that science-based measures are employed to ensure their continued existence. By undermining a scientific assessment related to endangered and threatened species, the Trump administration placed political concerns above science and thereby jeopardized the very existence of fish and whale species.