Endangered Species Threatened in Arizona Due to Politics and Bad Science

Published May 21, 2019

Federal agencies are abdicating their responsibility to use the best available science to protect some of the most jeopardized species on the planet.

What happened: In October 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reversed their long-standing requirement that a proposed city-sized development in southeastern Arizona needed a comprehensive biological assessment to evaluate the potential impacts to endangered species in the area. The FWS official in charge of this process recently said that the only reason he reversed his decision was because he was pressured by a high-level political appointee at the Department of the Interior (DOI). The result of the FWS reversal led to the development, Villages at Vigneto, to receive a permit to build by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Additionally, this reversal resulted in a narrower analysis on 51 acres (as opposed to 12,324 acres in the whole development) to determine the risk of harm to endangered and threatened species.

Why it matters: The Endangered Species Act requires that a type of analysis (called a biological assessment) be carried out for projects that are likely to affect endangered species. This analysis is required to be comprehensive and assess “direct, indirect, interrelated, and interdependent” effects and other cumulative effects of the project. However, the FWS’ reversal will severely limit the quality of data that can be used to determine whether the Vigneto development will harm endangered and threatened species. When narrow and less robust methodologies are used to determine the survival of entire species – methodologies that were only employed for political reasons – it means our federal agencies are abdicating their responsibility to use the best available science for the purposing of protecting some of the most jeopardized species on the planet.

Senior officials at the Department of Interior (DOI) pressured the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to narrow a scientific analysis investigating the impacts of a development in Arizona on endangered and threatened species. Truncated and less accurate analyses should never be basis for how we protect endangered species. A high-level DOI political appointee told Steve Spangle (a now retired but former FWS official) that he would be “wise to reconsider” his 2016 decision regarding the need for a comprehensive analysis on the impacts of a 12,324-acre development on endangered and threatened species in the area. Spangle’s reversal on the Villages at Vigneto development, a property proposed to be built about 45 miles from Tuscon, Arizona, allowed the US Army Corps of Engineers to issue a Clean Water permit without need to conduct a detailed biological assessment of the project’s impacts on endangered species. Instead, only 51 acres of construction will be considered in the analysis. The city-sized Vigneto development will likely threaten the last free-flowing major river in the arid Southwest, the San Pedro River, imperiling the habitats of hundreds of species.

Former FWS official Steve Spangle said that “I got rolled” by a “high-level politico” at the DOI, who pressured him via an attorney at the Solicitor’s Office. In the 34 years that Spangle has worked for the federal government, he has never received pressure to reverse his decision before; the political pressure factored into his decision to retire. Spangle said that “I strongly suspected and still do suspect that it was all a political process, not a biological one. And I think the public deserves to know that.”

The Vigneto development is estimated to hold 70,000 residents and contain offices, homes, golf courses, and resort and commercial development. For its water needs, the development would rely entirely on an aquifer that feeds the San Pedro River and it is feared that the massive groundwater pumping is likely to dry up parts of the San Pedro River in an already water-stressed area. The San Pedro River is a vital resource for the Sonoran Desert, and is estimated to sustain around 400 migratory bird species. By reducing the flow of the river, the development threatens the entire river ecosystem, from hundreds of migratory birds, to salamanders to bobcats. The San Pedro River may also provide crucial habitat for the highly endangered jaguars that that still roam across southern Arizona.

Federal law requires agencies to consult with FWS when considering a project that could have impacts on endangered species. However, until Spangle’s reversal, FWS and the Corps differed on how that biological analysis would be carried out for the Vigneto development. The Corps argued the analysis should be limited to the effects that will result from filling in 51 acres of desert washes, a type of desert habitat which attracts a rich plant and animal community. In an October 2016 letter, FWS argued that the whole 12,324-acre development needs to be assessed for its impacts on endangered species. Spangle justified this decision based on solid science – he cited several scientific studies that showed the potential impacts to two threatened species, the Western yellow-billed cuckoo and the Northern Mexican garter snake, and two endangered species, the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the jaguar.

There is good evidence to suggest that development in the area can lead to substantial changes in the San Pedro River ecology. In 2004, when a developer proposed a similar but smaller project on the same land, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned in a letter that the groundwater pumping could turn the river from a year-round, continuous river into an ephemeral stream, which only flows after storms or only during certain times of the year. Scientific evidence also suggests that building a large development near the San Pedro River could increase the risk of flooding and increase sediment buildup in the river, potentially degrading the river habitat.

Mike Ingram, the chairman and founder of the company (El Dorado Holdings) in charge of Vigneto development, previously raised this issue to then-Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. According to an emailed statement from El Dorado Holdings, Ingram has known Bernhardt “for a number of years” and asked that “the decision on this matter be made solely on the merits.” El Dorado Holdings additionally said that “Mr. Spangle’s final decision was substantively correct” and that “there is no evidence to the contrary.”

This is a clear case of a politician deciding to use their influence to force less scientifically valid methodologies to be carried out, thereby benefiting an industry. Federal agencies are required by law to evaluate and assess projects for potential harm to endangered and threatened species using the best available science. Only by using the best available science can we save endangered species from going extinct and disappearing forever.