Olema, CA – A new report out today shows that the best available science in imperiled plant and wildlife decisions isn’t always followed, despite the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
Pressure from politically-powerful special interests often unduly influences these decisions, undermining science and wildlife conservation, according to the Endangered Species Coalition (ESC). Now, under the Trump Administration, that pressure is worsening.
The report, “Suppressed: How Politics Drowned out Science for Ten Endangered Species” highlights ten imperiled fish, plant and wildlife conservation decisions over the last decade in which the science was either ignored or suppressed as a result of intense special interest lobbying and influence.
The report includes the imperiled Pacific leatherback sea turtles, whose populations face danger from California drift gillnets and longlines in Hawaii, fishing methods used to catch swordfish. This past June, the Trump administration withdrew a proposed regulation on drift gillnets (used to catch swordfish) in response to persistent lobbying from the commercial fishing industry.
“The Pacific leatherback is on the verge of extinction because they are drowning in alarming numbers in industrial drift gillnets and longline fishing gear– just to keep swordfish on the menu. These barbaric fishing methods must stop,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.
Pacific leatherback sea turtles are “the largest, deepest diving, and most migratory and wide ranging of all sea turtles,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Adults can reach eight feet in length and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Leatherbacks travel more than 6,000 miles across the ocean from Indonesian nesting beaches to feed on jellyfish along the California coast. They also face threats from plastic pollution in the oceans.
“Plastic bags are known to be ingested by leatherback sea turtles,” said Cassie Burdyshaw, advocacy and policy director at Turtle Island Restoration Network. “They mistake them for their favorite food: jellyfish. Underwater it’s very hard to tell the difference between a jellyfish and a plastic bag.”
The stifling of science has been widespread under the Trump Administration this past year, as it slashed science budgets at NASA, NOAA, EPA, and other agencies. The Administration has also hired industry representatives to run its agencies, pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords and deemed a scientific background unnecessary for positions that require scientific knowledge. Agency scientists have been silenced, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has consistently rolled back science-based rules in favor of polluters.
Turtle Island Restoration Network nominated the Pacific leatherback sea turtle for the report due to the rapid decline in their population. In the past three generations, the population of Pacific leatherback sea turtles has dramatically plummeted by 83 percent according to the IUCN Red List.
“Our native fish, plants and wildlife aren’t just a critically valuable part of the legacy we leave for future generations of Americans, they’re key to providing a good quality of life for all humans right now,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. “But we are concerned that the prevalence of special interest, industry representatives inside the Trump Administration is intensifying the suppression of science in endangered species decisions.”
Endangered Species Coalition’s member groups nominated species for the report. A committee of distinguished scientists reviewed the nominations, and decided which species should be included in the final report. The full report, along with a slideshow and additional species information can be viewed and downloaded at http://suppressedscience.org.
The Endangered Species Coalition produces a “Top 10” report annually, focusing on a different theme each year. Previous years’ reports are also available on the Coalition’s website.
Endangered Species Protections Thwarted
Four species in the report – the wolverine, greater sage grouse, dunes sagebrush lizard and the Hermes copper butterfly – were denied protection under the Endangered Species Act, in spite of massive, historic population declines and severe threats to the species. And just last week, the Trump Administration denied listing for four more imperiled species (on top of the 29 others denied protection under the Act this past year).
Another, the North Atlantic right whale – threatened by ship strikes, fishing gear entanglement, and seismic energy exploration – would have benefited from a decision to deny six seismic oil exploration permits. However, the Trump Administration has reversed that decision in an effort to expand drilling in the Atlantic.
Late last month, the Trump Administration finalized a recovery plan for the Mexican wolf, one of the most endangered mammals in North America. The plan ignored the scientific recommendations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’ own Mexican Wolf Recovery Team, calling for a minimum population of only half the number of wolves that the scientists recommended.
Another rare and endangered Southwest U.S. species in the report – the ocelot – is threatened with increased habitat fragmentation as a result of President Trump’s proposed border wall. The border wall would obstruct essential migration routes, not only for the ocelot, but for an estimated 90 other imperiled species.
Two other water-dwelling species in the report were also victims of science suppression, including the pallid sturgeon and the Pacific leatherback sea turtle. One of the largest reptiles in the world, the leatherback can journey more than 10,000 miles between habitats. This past June, the Trump administration withdrew a proposed regulation on drift gillnets (used to catch swordfish) in response to persistent lobbying from the commercial fishing industry.
In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the greater sage grouse as endangered, citing an unprecedented region-wide habitat conservation effort, tied to state and federal conservation plans. However, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke is threatening to undo even these modest, bi-partisan conservation measures. Meanwhile, sage grouse numbers have declined by 90 percent from historic levels. Protecting umbrella species like sage grouse conserves habitats on which many other species rely, like mule deer and pronghorn.