A Letter from Biologists on Strengthening Science in the Endangered Species Act

Published Apr 7, 2009

On April 28, 2009, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that their departments were rescinding changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that allowed federal agencies to decide for themselves if their own projects—such as roads, dams and mines—would threaten imperiled species. Once again, agencies would be required to consult with expert biologists within the two departments before undertaking or permitting projects. In the announcement, Secretary Salazar upheld the importance of the scientific foundation of the Endangered Species Act, stating, "Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments."

Just the day before, over 1,300 individual biologists and three scientific societies sent separate letters to the Interior and Commerce Departments urging that the rules be rolled back. The letter from individual biologists is reprinted below.

Secretary Ken Salazar
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240

Secretary Gary Locke
U.S. Department of Commerce
1401 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20230

Dear Secretary Salazar and Secretary Locke,

As scientists with expertise in biological diversity and loss of species, we urge you to overhaul actions and rule changes that weaken the scientific foundation of the Endangered Species Act. Congress has recently given you additional authority to begin to restore the scientific underpinnings of the Endangered Species Act by allowing you to rescind two rules implemented in the final days of the Bush administration. These rules fundamentally undermine the ability of science and scientists to protect our nation’s biodiversity.

The rules in question allow any federal agency to independently decide whether protected species would be threatened by their projects. Previously, when a federal agency considered a project, such as a highway, dam, or mine, it was required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). These "informal" consultations typically led to minor adjustments being made to the planned action that lessened the anticipated impact. This process also helped identify projects with particularly severe or complicated effects, which then received a thorough "formal" consultation.

Many government agencies do not have the biological expertise to determine the consequences of federal projects on endangered species, and may have vested interests in the implementation of a project. The FWS and NMFS consultations have, for decades, served as important checks and balances to keep our nation’s biodiversity safe. Consultation creates a method for informed decision making that provides better protections for endangered species and has led to successful mitigation efforts for hundreds of species.

The rules also sharply limit the types of information federal scientists can consider when evaluating federal projects, carving out broad exemptions for impacts that "are manifested through global processes" or result in "an extremely small, insignificant impact" on protected species. This is problematic because many severe environmental problems result from sources that individually might be minor but collectively cause serious harm. Fortunately, federal scientists have a decades-long proven track record of analyzing cumulative effects.

On March 3, 2009, President Obama issued a memorandum requesting that the Departments of Commerce and Interior review recent changes to Endangered Species Act implementation. On March 11, Congress passed legislation giving you special authority to rescind the rules by May 8. "For more than three decades," said the president, "The Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation's most threatened wildlife, and we should be looking for ways to improve it—not weaken it." We agree.

As you follow President Obama’s directive to find ways to strengthen the Endangered Species Act, we encourage you to ensure that the federal government is in the position to examine and regulate all challenges to endangered species. The threats our world face continue to evolve as we impact the environment in different ways. Federal government scientists must be given the ability to evaluate these emerging threats and communicate their consequences for imperiled species.

The Endangered Species Act is one of our most important environmental laws because of its reliance on robust scientific analysis. According to a May 30, 2005 article in Science, less than one percent of listed species have gone extinct since 1973, while 10 percent of candidate species still waiting to be listed have suffered that fate. A more recent comprehensive analysis demonstrates that listed species tended toward recovery more than not and the more thoroughly the Endangered Species Act was applied the better they did1. In addition to the hundreds of species that the Endangered Species Act has protected from extinction, listing has contributed to population increases or the stabilization of populations for at least 35 percent of listed species, and perhaps significantly more, as well as the recovery of such signature species as the peregrine falcon.

Congress has recognized that the recently enacted regulations should be rolled back and has given you the power to do so within a limited time that is fast expiring. Because the new rules compromise the quality and independence of scientific review and thereby undermine effective protections for wildlife and their habitats, we urge you to take swift action to rescind the rules.


Selected Signers

(Full list of signers is in the document PDF)

Eric Chivian
Harvard Medical School
Boston, MA

Paul Ehrlich
Stanford University
Stanford, CA

Daniel Janzen
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA

Donald Kennedy
Stanford University
Palo Alto, CA

Lynn Maguire
Duke University
Durham, NC

Gary Meffe
University of Florida
Brandon, VT

Barry Noon
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO

Stuart Pimm
Duke University
Key Largo, FL 

Johanna Schmitt
Brown University
Providence, RI

1. Performance of the Endangered Species Act, Mark W. Schwartz, Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 2008. 39:279–99

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