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Former Government Biologists Claim Water and Wildlife Agencies Systematically Violating Endangered Species Act on Rio Grande

FWS directors in the Southwest Region used fear of retribution to intimidate biologists and appease politically powerful water interests

Albuquerque, NM - Two former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who monitored the health of the Rio Grande and led efforts to salvage the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow claim that the agency has suppressed scientific information about the species' plight and systematically and willfully violated the Endangered Species Act. The biologists claim that there have been numerous and ongoing violations of the mandatory terms of a 2003 Biological Opinion which was put into place in order to protect the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow and Southwest willow flycatcher.

The biologists, Zach Simpson and Keith Basham, who both worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in either 2002, 2003 and 2004, claim FWS directors in the Southwest Region used fear of retribution to intimidate biologists and appease politically powerful water interests. They also claim all entities responsible for implementing the Biological Opinion, including most auspiciously the Bureau of Reclamation, have been willfully non-compliant.

Among the most egregious violations include exceeding the limit of fish that were permitted to be killed by permitted water operations without jeopardizing the silvery minnow and allowing the river to dry on numerous occasions when it was not permitted. In addition, the biologists claim the agencies allowed the Rio Grande to dry on dozens of occasions prior to dates permitted in the Biological Opinion and failed to limit the amount of miles that could dry on any one day to no more than four miles.

According to the biologists the worst cases of non-compliance include the following scenarios:

  • Allowing the river to dry in 2002 and 2003, prior to the June 30th and June 15th targets for continuous flowing water, respectively.
  • In 2003, a FWS employee instructed an Interstate Stream Commission employee, who had collected dead silvery minnows, to throw dead silvery minnows away in order to conceal their deaths and prevent the fish from being counted toward the cumulative permitted 'take', thereby saving the Bureau of Reclamation from violating the Biological Opinion. Once it was later clear that take had been violated, the take limit was arbitrarily raised by the FWS.
  • Allowing large stretches of the river to recede and dry in one day on dozens of occasions from 2002-2004, including a day in July 2004 when more than 17 miles of river dried, notwithstanding the direction to limit the daily upriver expansion of river drying to no more than four miles per day.
  • The failure of all agencies to monitor river conditions and to coordinate silvery minnow rescue efforts.

Zachary Simpson, who co-led the silvery minnow rescue team efforts in 2003 and also helped monitor silvery minnow spawning efforts as well as compliance with the Biological Opinion, claims that top Interior Department officials knew about the legal violations. In one instance on June 13th 2003, Interior Assistant Secretary Ann Klee, along with Joy Nicholopolous, the director of the Ecological Services Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, participated in a conference call during which Simpson told Albuquerque agency officials that a stretch of river required to have water in it was dry.

Simpson, a 26 year old graduate student who grew up and attended high school in Albuquerque, also says that other fish salvage workers and river monitors have been re-assigned, fired, or intimidated into leaving the agency. He also asserts that at least a few agency records have been manipulated to prevent an accurate public accounting of the events.

"It is clear to me that these violations were systematic, and, furthermore, that the Fish and Wildlife Service was clearly silent and complicit in the face of obvious violations of the Biological Opinion," said Simpson.

Keith Basham, a veteran of the current war in Iraq who led the silvery minnow salvage team in 2004, claims that the current leadership of federal wildlife and water management agencies has politicized science in an effort to appease development interests. "As a veteran of Iraqi Freedom, I found the behavior of the leadership of these agencies downright un-American," says Basham.

The biologists are coming forward now because they are concerned that similar manipulation of biological evidence and non-compliance with river flow requirements is likely continuing and is jeopardizing the health of the Rio Grande and the more than 400 species of native wildlife that depend on the river. They also are extremely skeptical about the ecological basis for the major increase in the permitted 'take' limit, recently approved by the FWS. Both biologists say the population is still extremely vulnerable and that it is too soon to tell whether this year's large flows will result in a healthier population next year.

WildEarth Guardians hopes the current spotlight on the Rio Grande provided by the two biologists will intensify scrutiny of all the activities and programs of the New Mexico offices of the FWS. "This office and its leadership is being touted as a model for the nation, but everything we see and hear from young and old, active and retired employees is that matters couldn't be worse," said John Horning, Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians. "Quite frankly, I'm outraged about the manipulation and the lack of personal and scientific integrity," he added.

The Rio Grande silvery minnow, once one of the most abundant fish species in the Rio Grande, is the last of its kind in the river. Listed as an endangered species in July 1994, it once was so common that thousands of swimming fish could turn the river's surface a 'silvery' color. The imperiled Southwestern willow flycatcher, listed under the ESA in March 1995 is the minnow's terrestrial partner, and is dependent upon the rapidly disappearing riverside Bosque of cottonwoods and willows.


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