What happened: The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) dismissed and rewrote a ‘biological opinion’ that determined endangered species would be threatened by changes in water management practices in California. After a team of federal scientists submitted a biological opinion in which they identified threats posed to endangered fishes, Trump administration official Paul Souza removed the original team of scientists and assigned a new team to rewrite the opinion.
Why it Matters: By ignoring the determination of federal and independent scientists and changing the findings of the biological opinion, the administration has politicized a scientific process. When science is sidelined in favor of political gains, agencies are no longer able to fulfill their duties.
The Trump administration has politicized a scientific process while threatening endangered species and preventing federal scientists from doing their job. In summer 2019, a political official at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) required a rewriting of a scientific study called a ‘biological opinion’ which showed that endangered species would be threatened by changes in water management in California. The final study written by a new team determined no risk to endangered species. By sidelining scientific evidence to justify a change in regulation, FWS prevented federal scientists from using the best available science to inform environmental regulation and protect endangered species.
In July 2019, federal scientists submitted a complete biological opinion which stated that proposed changes to water management rules would threaten endangered species such as the Delta Smelt and the Chinook Salmon. The study had been submitted and had been signed-off on by several agency staff, but just two days later, administration official Paul Souza intervened. He requested a two-month extension on the report and replaced the original team of scientists with new staff. The new team included lawyers and administrators in addition to biologists who were asked to “refine” and “improve” the report.
This rewrite of the final biological opinion comes after several years of unprecedented pressure from the Trump administration. In October 2018, President Trump issued a memo directing FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service to complete the biological opinion in just 135 days. In comparison, the 2009 opinion was completed by a full staff of scientists in 249 days. Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by KQED revealed that the agency felt understaffed and unequipped to write a thorough biological opinion in such a short time frame. Furthermore, those called upon for peer review were under unprecedented time constraints. In a potential attempt to hinder scientific input, scientists were asked to complete a thorough review of the opinion in just 12 days. This led to one reviewer being unable to complete a review of the document due to “scheduling constraints.”
In the same memo released by President Trump in October 2018, the president not only ordered FWS to finish the study in record time, but also ordered the agency “to minimize unnecessary regulatory burdens.” During his 2016 campaign, President Trump had promised California farmers more water. Minimizing regulatory burdens would allow President Trump to follow through with this promise while granting corporate agriculture firms the access to water for which they’ve been lobbying for decades.
The list of those with a potential stake in the matter also includes Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. Bernhardt is the current head of the Department of the Interior – the umbrella agency of FWS – and a former lobbyist for Westlands Water District who stood to benefit from lifting of water regulations. Bernhardt has confirmed in interviews that soon after joining the administration he directed a water resource official to begin weakening protections for endangered fishes in order to open up more water for agricultural use.
The potential increase in water pumping to agriculture firms has been met with pushback on multiple levels. The California Governor and Attorney General filed a lawsuit in February challenging the order to send more water to farmers. The Campaign Legal Center also filed a formal complaint with the Department of the Interior Attorney General requesting an investigation into potential ethics violations by Secretary Bernhardt.
The mission of the US Fish and Wildlife Service is to “conserve the nature of America”, but the agency cannot fulfill this duty if it continues to ignore expert advice. By disregarding the determination of federal and independent scientists, FWS have prevented staff from using the best available science to inform policy thereby putting endangered species at risk. the best available science to inform policy thereby putting endangered species at risk.