By John H. Weis
Updated: 10/09/2009 07:57:22 PM MDT
When Barack Obama was running for office, his campaign workers told us he would "change the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology." His administration would "develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making," indicating that when politics and science collide, science would win.
Unfortunately, two environmental decisions of his administration (and a third effectively made by inaction) have not been based on the best science but instead by the usual politics.
The restoration of the gray wolf in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming was declared a success by the Bush administration. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the Wyoming wolf management plan as inadequate, plans by Montana and Idaho were accepted, allowing for fall and winter wolf hunts in those two states. The Obama administration, led by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, supported the Bush administration's decision, allowing the hunts to continue.
Activists and biologists brought suit to block the hunts, arguing that allowing them without having a biologically sound wolf management plan for the region was faulty. Wolves do not respect state lines, thus any plan had to include Wyoming. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy also refused to block the hunts but objected to the administration's approach, stating "The Service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science. That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious."
A similar decision was recently made by the Obama administration in its review of the Columbia River salmon. Four dams on the lower Snake River effectively block salmon and steelhead migrations into Idaho, bringing these fish to the edge of extinction. These four dams create a 140-mile slack water in the river, raising the temperature and allowing for the expansion of non-native predatory fish.
The salmon and steelheads smolts swimming downstream suffer high mortality. Biologists have studied the effect of these four dams and have come to the conclusion these dams must come down if these native fish are to survive.
The previous administration decided that additional steps (augmentation with hatchery fish and barging smolts) would fix the situation, ignoring the fact that such actions in the past have not helped. The Obama administration's decision upheld the previous plan, adding new enticements but nothing that will alter status quo.
Dam removal is noted only as a remote possibility, placating Washington state politicians who maintain these dams are important for their state's economy, which they are not. U.S. District Judge James Redden has ruled against previous administrations for inadequate protection for these fish, and the policies of the current administration will force him back into that fray.
On another front, the Obama administration's lack of decision is threatening arid lands in the West. Predictions of global climate change in the West (with reduced rainfall and higher temperatures) necessitate a reduction of grazing on federal lands. Many of the lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are marginal for grazing.
As large sections of the West dry up, continued grazing will only accelerate the process of desertification. Good range science is predicting calamity to these lands with current usage, yet there is little activity from this administration to limit grazing. This must change if Western rangelands are to be saved from simply blowing away.
Barack Obama was supported in his presidential bid by conservation and environmental groups in the hope he would reverse the disastrous policies of the past administration and resolve some of the festering issues of public land use and endangered species protection. To date, some of the environmental policies put forth by his administration have made us wonder if we made the right choice.
John H. Weis is a conservationist, an avid angler and a citizen of Salt Lake County.