Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today in federal district court challenging a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce protected habitat for the California red-legged frog. The frog, made famous by Mark Twain's story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," is a California native once abundant from the Central Coast to the Sierra Nevada foothills.
The suit is one of 13 being filed today challenging the Bush administration's political interference in management of 55 endangered species and 8.7 million acres of public land. Suits over six other species were filed in November. Earthjustice filed the California red-legged frog suit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity.
At issue is an April 13, 2006, Endangered Species Act rule, adopted by the service, that revised the "critical habitat" for the California red-legged frog by reducing it from 4.1 million acres to approximately 450,000 acres. The service agreed to revise the frog's critical habitat rule as a result of a closed-door settlement between industry and the service that was approved over the objections of a coalition of conservation groups.
The California red-legged frog's critical habitat rule is one of several dozen species decisions that may have been manipulated by former Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald, who resigned in disgrace in May 2007. Both the Inspector General and Government Accountability Office have ongoing investigations in political interference by MacDonald and others in Endangered Species Act decisions.
This isn't the first time the service has been derelict in its duties to protect the California red-legged frog and its critical habitat. It was only as a result of a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups in 1999 that the service initially agreed to designate the subspecies' critical habitat, even though the agency was under a statutory duty to do so since the species was listed in 1996.
"The red-legged frog won't survive unless we protect its habitat" said Mike Senatore, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, "Julie MacDonald's interference is inexcusable. She is an endangered species death star."
"We're headed back to court not only to protect Mark Twain's celebrated jumping frog, but also to protect the scientific integrity of the Endangered Species Program," said Erin Tobin of Earthjustice. "The California red-legged frog, once common across the state, appears to have been the victim of politics. We urge the Department of the Interior to promptly revise the frog's critical habitat and fix the mess created by Julie MacDonald and possibly others."
An Agency Under a Cloud
Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that Julie MacDonald improperly influenced the scientific integrity of the frog's critical habitat rule in an attempt to reduce protections for the frog for the benefit of developers and other special-interest groups. The service conceded on November 23, 2007, that the frog's critical habitat "should be revised," but suggested it would only do so "as funding is made available."
The service decided to reconsider six other species listing and critical habitat decisions influenced by MacDonald, but conservation groups argue that the controversy extends well beyond Julie MacDonald and these seven species decisions. In response to the service's refusal to plumb the depths of corruption in its ranks, the Center for Biological Diversity has pledged to file suit over 55 species whose protections were illegally overturned by MacDonald or other high-level officials.
Spurred by documents uncovered by the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups, lawmakers recently have called for a wider review of Julie MacDonald's decisions. The General Accounting Office is currently looking into the process by which the service arrived at its decision to revise the seven species listing and critical habitat decisions. At the request of Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the Inspector General agreed to reopen his investigation and broaden it to consider whether there was improper political interference with the science in 18 species decisions.
Read the complaint (PDF)
Erin Tobin, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6700
Mike Senatore, Center for Biological Diversity, (202) 232-1216
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