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Lawsuit Filed Challenging Removal of Protection for Sacramento Splittail
by Dan Bacher
Friday Aug 14th, 2009 9:50 AM
The Center for Biological Diversity Thursday filed a lawsuit challenging the Bush regime's corrupt, politically tainted decision to remove the Sacramento splittail from protection under the Endangered Species Act. The dramatic decline of the native fish occurs as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Schwarzenegger Democrats in the California Legislature are pushing a plan to build a peripheral canal that will likely result in the extinction of splittail, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and green sturgeon.

”It should be a no-brainer for the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration to clean up this shameful relict of the Bush legacy and again protect the splittail,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The splittail has severely declined since delisting; federal protection is needed to prevent the extinction of splittail and other native fish species that share its habitat in the Delta and Central Valley.”
For Immediate Release, August 13, 2009

Contact: Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

Lawsuit Filed Challenging Improper Bush-era Removal of
Endangered Species Protection for Sacramento Splittail

SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a lawsuit challenging a politically tainted decision by the Bush administration to strip the Sacramento splittail, an imperiled fish species native to the Central Valley and San Francisco Bay-Delta, of Endangered Species Act protections – a 2003 decision engineered by disgraced former Bush administration official Julie MacDonald. The lawsuit is part of a larger campaign on the part of the Center for Biological Diversity to undo Bush-administration decisions that weakened protections for dozens of endangered species.

“The Bush administration regularly put industry interests over conservation and let politics dictate endangered species decisions, but the delisting of the splittail was one of the most outrageous cases of political interference, manipulation of science, and blatant conflict of interest,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Three investigations by the inspector general and a report by the Government Accountability Office to Congress concluded that Julie MacDonald illegally tampered with the splittail listing decision.”

”It should be a no-brainer for the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration to clean up this shameful relict of the Bush legacy and again protect the splittail,” said Miller. “The splittail has severely declined since delisting; federal protection is needed to prevent the extinction of splittail and other native fish species that share its habitat in the Delta and Central Valley.”

Conservation groups petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the splittail in 1992 and the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the species in 1994. The agency delayed listing until a Center lawsuit and court order forced the Service to take action. In 1999 the splittail was listed as a threatened species. After litigation by water agencies challenging the listing, a court ordered the Service to review the status of the splittail. In 2003 the Service removed the splittail from the threatened list despite strong consensus by agency scientists and fisheries experts that it should retain its protected status.

The delisting decision, which expressly ignored the most recent splittail population trend studies, was overseen by Bush administration official Julie MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior. MacDonald resigned in disgrace following a scathing misconduct investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general revealing the depths of her corruption. MacDonald, who owned an 80-acre farm in the Yolo Bypass – a floodplain that is key habitat for the splittail – edited the splittail decision in a manner that appeared to benefit her financial interests. Two subsequent inspector general investigations concluded that MacDonald should have recused herself from the listing review process, and that she edited and interfered with the scientific data used in the decision.

Background

The Sacramento splittail (Pogonichthys macrolepidotus) is a minnow native to the upper San Francisco Estuary and the Central Valley. Splittail are primarily freshwater fish but can tolerate moderately salty water. They are found mostly in slow-moving marshy sections of rivers and dead-end sloughs, though floodplains are important for spawning. The splittail once occurred in lakes and rivers throughout the Central Valley as far north as Redding on the Sacramento River and as far south as the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, as well as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Massive water diversions and alteration of important spawning and rearing habitat have driven the species to near extinction. Formerly common in the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Feather, and American rivers, the splittail is extirpated from all but a fraction of its former range and now is largely restricted to the Delta, Suisun Bay, Suisun Marsh, and Napa Marsh.

The splittail is estimated to be only 35 to 60 percent as abundant in the Delta as it was in 1940, and the percentage decline over the species’ historic range is much greater. Splittail numbers in the Delta have declined steadily since 1980, and in 1992 numbers declined to the lowest on record. Although population levels appear to fluctuate widely from year to year based on freshwater outflow, since the 2003 delisting of the species available data (2003-2007) shows splittail abundance has dropped to low levels for five consecutive years. The remnant populations of splittail in the Delta require adequate freshwater outflow and periodic floodplain inundation to thrive. Splittail are threatened by unsustainable water diversions, the effects of dams, wetlands habitat loss, pesticide impacts, and predation and competition by introduced species.

The manipulation of science for the benefit of private interests reached new heights at the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Bush administration. By suppressing, twisting, and ignoring information from its own biologists, the administration illegally removed or withheld Endangered Species Act protections for numerous species. In many cases, government and university scientists carefully documented the unauthorized editing of scientific documents, the overruling of scientific experts, and the falsification of economic analyses. Many of the illegal decisions were engineered by MacDonald.

The Center kicked off a Cleaning up the Bush Legacy Campaign in 2007, seeking to reinstate protections for 60 imperiled species and more than 8 million acres of habitat wrongly denied federal protection because of political interference. The campaign has already met with significant success: in response to Center lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to redo critical habitat designations for 19 species and reconsidered listing the rare, highly imperiled Mexican garter snake as an endangered.

Unsustainable water diversions from the Delta have caused the collapse of many fish runs in the Delta and Central Valley. Since 2002, delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, Sacramento splittail, and striped bass have declined catastrophically and the state's largest salmon run of Central Valley fall-run chinook is suffering from record decline, forcing cancellation of commercial and recreational salmon fishing in California for the second straight year. White and green sturgeon numbers in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River have also fallen to alarmingly low levels. The southern green sturgeon population was federally listed as threatened in 2006.

Because federal and state agencies have so mismanaged the Bay-Delta, California’s largest and most important estuary, courts and federal agencies have begun to order changes in water export operations to protect fish populations. In 2007, an Alameda County court ruled that the California Department of Water Resources had been illegally pumping water out of the Delta without a permit to kill delta smelt and other fish species listed under the California Endangered Species Act. A federal court also rejected a federal “biological opinion” allowing high water exports and ordered reduced Delta pumping. In 2008, a federal judge invalidated a water plan that would have allowed more pumping from the Delta at the expense of protected salmon and steelhead trout. Earlier this year the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that pumping operations of the Central Valley Project jeopardize the long-term survival of winter and spring-run Chinook salmon, green sturgeon, Central Valley steelhead, and orcas that feed on the salmon, and mandated a 5-7% reduction in Delta water exports to save salmon.

More information on the Sacramento splittail

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with 225,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org
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