Scientists Challenge Restrictions on Use of Genetic Studies for Endangered Species Review

Published Aug 14, 2008

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

In a forceful letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, scientists challenged a policy restricting the use of recently discovered genetic data in reviewing the status of endangered species. The policy was announced in January 2005 by Dale Hall, director of the Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most notably, the rule bars scientists from considering any information on species' genetic diversity discovered after the initial listing of a species as endangered when determining the relative risk of extinction.

In an impressive show of solidarity, 163 scientists signed on to a letter of protest which explained: "the Southwest Region's new policy does not reflect the best available science, fails to meet the primary purpose of the endangered species act, and goes against 30 years of Endangered Species Act [ESA] implementation."¹

The new genetics policy makes it impossible for southwest regional Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to consider recent genetic data on endangered species. The policy dictates that only genetic information known at the time of a species' ESA listing can be considered in evaluating the status of that species. The rule bars scientists from taking advantage of recent advances in genetics, and forces them to rely on data that may be decades old.² 

The policy effectively takes away from scientists an important tool with which to evaluate the status of vulnerable species and threats to their extinction. In their letter to Mr. Hall, scientists explained that "it is indisputable that recovery of endangered species will often require the protection and enhancement of multiple genetic lineages or populations." The letter went on to identify four species for which recent genetic data has been essential to recovery efforts: the Apache trout, Gila trout, Mexican spotted owl, and Southwestern willow flycatcher.³ The letter echoes the statement of Dr. Phil Hedrick, Ullman Distinguished Professor of Conservation Biology at Arizona State University, who explained that "genetics and evolutionary information have to be incorporated for species to survive in the long term."⁴

Mr. Hall's genetics memo also generated criticism from a fellow FWS regional director. Ralph Morgenweck, Regional Director of the Mountain Prairie Region, issued a strongly-worded reply to Mr. Hall, stating "I conclude that a broad application of your policy would conflict with the purposes of the ESA."⁵

The ESA requires the agency to use "the best available science" to protect the most vulnerable species. The letter charges that the Southwest Region's new genetics policy, by not reflecting the best available science, leaves the region in violation of the ESA.⁶ The new policy blinds the Service to a whole range of known scientific information. Sally Stefferued, a former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, summarized the policy as follows: "This is a pretty powerful weapon to disable protection of endangered species."⁷

Dale Hall never responded to the concerns of FWS scientists and the larger scientific community.⁸ In 2005, President Bush nominated Mr. Hall to be the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and he was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in on October 12, 2005.9 

Letter from scientists to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Southwest Regional Director Dale Hall, 20 June 2005, accessed 13 October 2006.
2. Memo from Dale Hall, "Policy on Genetics in Endangered Species Activity," January 27, 2005, accessed December 7, 2006.
3. Letter to Mr. Hall.
4. "Assault on Science at Fish & Wildlife Service Provokes Sharp Criticism by More than 160 Scientists," Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) news release, 20 June 2005, accessed December 7, 2006.
5. Letter from Ralph Morgenweck to Dale Hall, March 11, 2005, accessed December 7, 2006.
6. Letter to Mr. Hall.
7. UCS.
8. Letter from 3 environmental groups to Senators Inhofe and Jeffords opposing nomination of Dale Hall as director of U.S. FWS, September 15, 2005, accessed December 7, 2006.
⁹. H. Dale Hall, official FWS biography, accessed December 7, 2006.

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