California Lawmakers Request Relief for 'Endangered Humans'

By Pat Taylor | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - The drumbeat for reform of the Endangered Species Act got a few decibels louder last week. This comes as a relief for people who believe that deliberate misuse of the act is destroying their livelihoods and culture.

Bipartisan committees in the California State Senate and Assembly introduced a resolution asking the federal government to take action to remedy the current ESA crisis in the Klamath Basin, and to "ensure that this crisis is not replicated in other regions of the country."

The Klamath Basin crises gained national attention a month ago when as many as 20,000 local citizens staged a "bucket brigade" to protest the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's April 7 announcement that it would not be able to provide irrigation water for 1,400 family farms in the basin this year.

Instead, the available water - already limited by drought - would be used to sustain "critical" or protected habitat for some "endangered" sucker fish and "threatened" salmon as dictated by the ESA.

The Bureau acted after environmental activist organizations filed suit under the "citizen" lawsuit provision of the ESA. The lawsuit resulted in a court decision that said the rights of the fish take precedence over the farmers' century-old water rights.

According to the California resolution, the lack of irrigation water for crops already has resulted in "severe adverse impacts" upon farm and ranch families and the people who work for them; agricultural and retail businesses; schools; local governments; and rural communities at large. Approximately 2,600 people already have lost their jobs.

Bill would officially request 'God Squad'

First and foremost, the resolution officially calls on President Bush and Congress to convene the Endangered Species Committee. This cabinet-level committee is commonly known as the "God Squad" because it has the power to exempt a specific area or project from the ESA's requirements that the rights of threatened or endangered species be given priority over all other rights, even if the exemption means the species could become extinct.

The bill notes that "legitimate, fair, and unanswered questions have been raised concerning the process, technical soundness, equity, and necessity of the actions and decisions" made by federal agencies in the Klamath Basin crisis. It asks the "God Squad" to review those issues.

Although there has been much talk of requesting that the Endangered Species Committee be convened in the Klamath Basin crisis, this will be the first official request, if Governor Gray Davis signs the resolution.

A spokesperson for Assemblyman Dick Dickerson, one of the resolution's primary sponsors, said there has been no indication from the governor's office whether or not he would support the resolution. A spokesperson for the governor said Davis usually does not take a stand on any legislation this early in the process.

No scientific peer review

The California State Assembly resolution also asks Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans to "immediately seek and consider an objective, independent review of the biological opinions" that led to the Bureau of Reclamation's withholding of the irrigation water.

Before any federal agency takes an action that could affect an endangered species, it must first obtain a "biological opinion" as to whether the action would have an adverse effect on the species. ESA critics have long contended that these biological opinions tend to be very one-sided, are not based on real science, and do not consider all the facts. Critics say the opinions are designed to produce the results the agency wants.

Although the ESA does not require a scientific peer review of the biological opinions, critics say common practice dictates that such a review should take place.

In the case of the Klamath Basin, two basic biological opinions come into play. The first was prepared by the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which made the original decision to list the sucker fish as endangered.

The second biological opinion was prepared by the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which made the original decision to list the coho salmon as endangered.

Dickerson, among others, has called the opinions "flawed, highly questionable, incomplete and full of holes."

Dickerson has taken the state legislature's request for independent review of the opinions one step further. He has asked the University of California to form an independent panel of peer experts to review the biological opinions. The University has agreed.

A similar peer review of the FWS' biological opinion has been conducted at Oregon State University by a panel of scientists whose works were quoted extensively in the document.

The scientists were extremely critical. They questioned the validity of the claims made in the document. Moreover, they blasted the document for having "editorial problems" of "such magnitude" that they "obscure the data and make it very difficult to find validity in claims."

The scientists said the "misspelled words, incomplete sentences, apparent word omissions, missing or incomplete citations, repetitious statements, vagueness, illogical conclusions, inconsistent and contradictory statements (of the back to back), factual inaccuracies, lack of rigor, rampant speculation, format, content, and organizational structure make it very difficult to evaluate this Biological Opinion."

The University of California peer review is expected to take approximately 60 days.

ESA reform

The California resolution further asks that federal agencies revise their "technical and decision-making processes" in implementing the ESA to ensure that they are "open, honest, objective, and timely." It calls on Congress to amend the ESA so that it does not result in "disastrous consequences to citizens and communities."

An ESA reform bill was introduced into the U.S. Senate last month by Senators Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) The bill includes revision of the processes referenced by the California bill. Although it does not require peer review of biological opinions, it does provide that greater weight would be given to data that has been field-tested or peer-reviewed.

Dickerson's spokesperson said it will probably take at least a month for the bill to work its way through the state legislature. The spokesperson said although the bill has partisan support, it is expected to meet with opposition from some of the legislature's more liberal members.