Science Regarding Endangered Species Act Manipulated

Published Apr 7, 2003

A wide array of scientists, government officials, and environmental groups has charged that the George W. Bush administration is engaged in a systematic attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act.1 The administration has supported pending amendments before Congress that would make it harder to list threatened species, in particular by greatly limiting the use of population modeling.2 This technique is the most credible way to assess the likelihood that a small species population will survive in a given habitat.3

Perhaps most troubling, however, has been the way in which the Bush administration has suppressed or even attempted to distort the scientific findings of its own agencies to further its political agenda. These actions go well beyond a policy fight over the Endangered Species Act and represent a manipulation of the scientific underpinnings of the policy-making process itself.

Decisionmaking for Missouri River management provides an example of how scientific underpinnings have been ignored. The management of the Missouri River, the nation's longest, has long been a contentious issue. To be able to navigate the river and get grain to market, farmers and barge owners want the river's flow to be uniform in the spring, summer, and fall. Conservationists and others concerned about the health of the river's ecosystem favor a more natural management scheme in which the water fluctuates with the seasons, thereby aiding the spawning of fish and nesting of birds.

In late 2000, a group of scientists that had been studying the river flow issued its final biological opinion on the matter, which was to take effect in 2003. This team had already issued preliminary findings that favored seasonal fluctuations in river flow, based on more than 10 years of scientific research. Such a river management system, they contended, would comply with the Endangered Species Act by helping to protect two species of birds (the threatened piping plover and the endangered interior least tern) and one species of fish (the endangered pallid sturgeon). The findings of this team had been confirmed by independent peer review as well as by the National Academy of Sciences.4

At this point, however, the Bush administration intervened, apparently to maintain the status quo that favors strong political interests in the lower section of the Missouri River Basin,5 by creating a new team to revise the earlier biological opinion. Craig Manson, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, authorized the replacement in a memo describing the new group as "a SWAT team" that would review the situation and reach a swift judgment on the matter.6

Assistant Secretary Manson demanded an unusually expedited process, requiring a new bioligical opinion in one-third the normal time from the 15-member "SWAT team" that included only two scientists from the original team and region, and co-leaders with little expertise on the Missouri River or its issues.7 In December 2003, the team released its "amendment" to the 2003 biological opinion. This amendment has not been peer reviewed by independent experts.8

In contrast to the original, the amended biological opinion concluded that there was no jeopardy to piping plovers and least terns from current Missouri flows, but agreed that the proposed water levels for 2004 would jeopardize the pallid sturgeon. The amendment's proposed "reasonable and prudent alternatives" were significantly less stringent than the original biological opinion but did require the Army Corps of Engineers (the federal agency that manages water flows on the Missouri River) to do some river flow modifications.9

Taking into account the amended biological opinion from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps then developed its environmental impact statement and new Master Manual (the plan that guides river management), which was released in March 2004. The Corps' plan did not restore the more natural ebb and flow of the river to protect threatened and endangered birds and fish, as recommended by the scientists on the original, peer-reviewed biological opinion, but created instead a plan to build new habitat for endangered pallid sturgeon by July 1, 2004.10

Absent independent peer review for the amended biological opinion, it is difficult to ascertain whether this opinion and plan was sufficient to effectively protect the species at risk. What is clear, however, is that the Bush administration's political agenda interfered with the scientific integrity of the policymaking process in this case. Allyn Sapa, a former biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who supervised the Missouri River project for more than five years, stated, "It's hard not to think that because our findings don't match up with what they want to hear, they are putting a new team on the job who will give them what they want."11

  1. B. Mason, "Ecologists attack endangered species logjam," Nature, December 11, 2003. For a detailed report, see also Defenders of Wildlife, "Sabotaging the Endangered Species Act," December 3, 2003.
  2. Testimony of Craig Manson, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Department of the Interior, before the House Resources Committee, regarding H.R. 4840, June 19, 2002. Most recent proposed legislation includes H.R. 1662, "Sound Science for Endangered Species Act Planning Act of 2003." See also, E. Buck, M.L. Corn, and P. Baldwin, "Endangered Species: Difficult Choices," CRS Issue Brief for Congress, Congressional Research Service, May 20, 2003.
  3. See July 10, 2002, letter from over 300 scientists with expertise in conservation and ecological fields to Congress warning against efforts to weaken the science provisions of the Endangered Species Act (available from the Union of Concerned Scientists).
  4. A detailed National Academy of Sciences news release about the report, The Missouri River Ecosystem: Exploring the Prospects for Recovery (2002), online at; the report can be found online at See also L. Quaid, "Bush administration yanks Missouri River scientists off project," Associated Press, November 5, 2003.
  5. See M. Grunwald, "Washed Away: Bush v. the Missouri River," The New Republic, October 27, 2003.
  6. Craig Manson memo to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, October 29, 2003.
  7. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service news release, November 12, 2003 indentifying team members online at, and author interview with Chad Smith, Director Nebraska Field Office of American Rivers, March 2004.
  8. Grunwald, The New Republic, October 27, 2003.
  9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "2003 Amendment to the 2000 Biological Opinion on the Operation of the Missouri River Mainstem Reservoir System, Operation and Maintenance of the Missouri River Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project, and Operation of Kansas River Reservoir System," December 16, 2003. Available online at
  10. All Army Corps documents are available online at
  11. As quoted in A. Griscom, "They blinded me with pseudo science: the Bush administration is jettisoning real scientists in favor of yes men," Grist. Posted online at, November 14, 2003.