Endangered Species Act Fell Into Disuse Under Nominee
Only One Jeopardy Opinion in Nearly 6,000 Consultations as Staff Told to Refrain
Washington, DC — The man named by the Obama administration to administer the Endangered Species Act almost never invoked it to protect wildlife, according to agency statistics released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In fact, Sam Hamilton, whose nomination to head the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is now pending, had by far the weakest record on Endangered Species Act enforcement of any comparable official in the country.
Since 1997, Hamilton has overseen the 10-state FWS Southeastern Region, which has the biggest and most numerous endangered species issues of any region. FWS records covering the three year period 2004 through 2006, the latest available, show that Hamilton’s region conducted 5,974 reviews (called consultations) of development permits or other federal agency actions. Yet Hamilton issued only one objection, called a jeopardy opinion or letter. By contrast, during the same period the FWS Rocky Mountain Region had less than one tenth as many consultations (586) but issued 100 jeopardy opinions.
“Under Sam Hamilton, the Endangered Species Act has become a dead letter,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the White House announcement on Hamilton touted his “innovative conservation” work. “Apparently, the word ‘no’ is not part of ‘innovative’ in Mr. Hamilton’s lexicon.”
The ability of FWS to require consultation under the Endangered Species Act was recently restored by the Obama administration in reversing a controversial “midnight regulation” issued in the waning days of the Bush presidency. In reinstating mandatory consultations this April, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited this review as being vital for “ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law”.
Hamilton’s region includes Florida, where there has been intense political pressure against any federal actions perceived to impede development. Reflecting that pressure, FWS biologists from the agency’s Vero Beach office wrote in a 2005 joint letter that their supervisors had forbidden them from writing jeopardy opinions on any project, no matter how destructive. One key supervisor called the Florida panther a “zoo species” because the cat was already doomed to extinction in the wild and that any jeopardy opinions at this point were a waste of time.
Under Hamilton virtually no species was listed and no critical habitat was designated except by lawsuit, and even then the habitat was severely truncated. In order to win these lawsuits, environmental groups must show that FWS ignored clear and overwhelming scientific evidence, usually from its own specialists.
“To end the cycle of Endangered Species Act lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs a director who is willing to follow the law and actually implement the Act,” Ruch added. “Sam Hamilton’s record suggests that he will extend the policies of Bush era rather than bring needed change.”