Center for Biological Diversity Sues Interior Department and FWS over Species Status Assessment Program

On November 8, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a complaint against the Department of the Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for failing to provide notice and comment on the Species Status Assessment (SSA) program. The complaint seeks an opportunity for comment on the SSA program as outlined in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) as well as costs and fees for the suit.

Under the APA, any rulemaking by an Agency must conform to certain procedures. Namely, the proposed rule must be published in the Federal Register. The publication in the Federal Register must include the contents of the proposed rule as well as information about where and when any comments to the rule by members of the public must be submitted to the agency. The agency must review the comments submitted and publish the final rule in the Federal Register. In the publication of the final rule, there are also responses to comments that were received.

The Species Status Assessment program is part of the FWS efforts to enforce the Endangered Species Act (ESA). According to the complaint, the SSA began development during the Obama Administration back in 2012 when draft guidelines were prepared. At no time were the guidelines released for public comment. The use of SSAs began in 2014 in relation to two listed species, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout and the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse. In 2016, the SSA framework was finalized. According to the FWS, the SSA program is intended to improve implementation of the ESA and increase conservation effort success. The SSA program is used to assess the biological status of species by gathering all the best available information on the species, its needs, and how environmental factors impact the species. The intent is to aid decision makers by providing “a scientifically rigorous characterization of species status that focuses on the likelihood that the species
will sustain populations within its ecological settings along with key uncertainties in that
characterization.” According to the FWS, the SSA does not result in a direct decision.

The complaint alleges that the problem with the SSA is that it takes power away from scientists and places it in the hands of the regional director, assistant regional director, and field office lead at the FWS, who are bureaucrats appointed by the Interior and FWS and susceptible to political rather than scientific concerns. The complaint alleges that concerns arose after the Acting Director of the FWS issued a memorandum in October 2017 entitled “State Representation on Species Status Assessment Teams.” This memorandum announced that the FWS would ask representatives from state governor or wildlife offices to serve on SSA teams for any species within their state. This only adds to the fear that political appointees will have more of a say in species decisions rather than expert scientists.

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