By Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
May 9, 2007
Last week's resignation of a high-level Department of Interior official who subverted scientific documents calls into question a whole slew of decisions on endangered species, potentially including Summit County's boreal toads and lynx.
Julie McDonald, who headed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species program, quit after government investigators determined that she violated federal ethics rules by sharing internal agency information with industry lobbyists.
Environmental groups, including the Boulder-based Center for Native Ecosystems, released other documents showing that McDonald specifically ordered agency scientists to change their conclusions on endangered species decisions.
In part because of McDonald's resignation, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a May 9 hearing on political interference in the scientific decision-making process.
The Colorado species decisions McDonald affected include those regarding the white-tailed prairie dog and Gunnison sage grouse. While scientific evidence clearly suggested that those species qualify for listing under the Endangered Species Act, those conclusions were altered at McDonald's direction.
There are no documents showing that McDonald directly made any changes to decisions involving lynx or boreal toads, but CNE conservation director Josh Pollock the decision to leave Colorado out of a critical habitat designation for lynx suggests that politics played a role.
Under a court order, the agency last year released a bare-bones habitat map limited to a few pockets of mainly National Park lands, which already enjoy a high level of protection.
"It's a great example of politics trumping science," Pollock said. "There is no scientifically based reason to exclude Colorado," he added, explaining the proposals like the village at Wolf Creek, the Ginn development in Minturn, and a slew of timber sales in the southern Rockies have the potential for a significant cumulative impact on lynx. A critical habitat designation in the state would at least protect some core areas deemed crucial to ensuring continued recovery of the species.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials last fall said their decision to leave Colorado off the map was based on the fact that the southern Rockies aren't considered a core area necessary for survival of the species.
"Colorado didn't qualify under that criteria," said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger. Critical habitat adds very little protection for species, Katzenberger said, adding that lynx in Colorado are still fully protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"The strongest lynx populations, the ones that have stuck around, are all adjacent to Canada," said Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Lori Nordstrom, explaining that the proposed critical habitat designations are all in places where lynx can wander across the border to mingle with populations in the Lower 48.