A leaked memo from the US Fish and Wildlife Service concerning how the agency plans to regulate endangered species listings under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) could have severe impacts on imperiled wildlife. According to the memo, the USFWS intends to formally request the presence of at least two representatives from state governments on all species status assessment (SSA) teams—one from the state’s fish and wildlife management agency and one designated by the governor’s office.
SSA teams are crucial to how the USFWS decides whether to list a species or remove a currently listed one under the ESA. The teams have always been composed of scientists who are qualified to collect the relevant data on a species and provide it to the agency. The USFWS then relies upon that expert information to make its decision. Infusing politics into the decision-making could have devastating consequences for species such as the Utah prairie dog, where the science supports listing but the state government opposes it.
The ESA requires that listing determinations be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available [emphasis added].” The addition of the state and its political interests in the listing determination would violate this mandate of the ESA. The agency can consider state and private interests in decisions such as designating critical habitat, but those viewpoints can only be considered after the scientific assessment has been completed and reviewed and the listing determination made.
Through its use of the word “solely,” Congress made an unequivocal statement about what can and cannot be considered in the listing determination. The policy that the USFWS seems to be proposing could be found invalid based on the plain language of the ESA. In addition, the agency arguably cannot make regulatory changes like this without first going through public notice and comment. Adhering to the letter of the law under the ESA—and keeping political interests out of listing decisions—is critical to the protection of species such as prairie dogs and wolves that reside in states hostile to ESA protections.