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GAO: Fish, Wildlife Service Lacks Way to Track Species Threats in West

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has established no system to track cumulative threats or injuries to most of the species considered threatened or endangered on millions of acres of federally managed lands in the western United States, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report to Congress.

Under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), federal agencies have to ensure that any action they authorize, fund or carry out, which includes drilling for natural gas and oil, is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a species protected under the law.

According to the GAO, the western United States is home to more than one-third of the 1,317 species listed under the ESA, and federal agencies formally consult with the Department of Interior's FWS when their actions may affect listed species or habitat identified as critical to a species' survival. The FWS is responsible for issuing a biological opinion assessing whether an action is likely to "take," or harm, a listed species, and it may require the agencies to monitor and report on the action's effects.

Among other things, the FWS has been part of the consulting process to determine whether the greater sage grouse should be listed (see Daily GPI, Aug. 8, 2008; Dec. 6, 2007).

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-WVA), who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, requested the review.

For listed species subject to the formal consultations in 11 western states, GAO was asked to examine the extent to which the FWS tracked required monitoring reports and cumulative takes.

After reviewing 128 consultation files in five offices and interviewing staff in the western state offices, the GAO found that the FWS has no system to track the monitoring reports it requires, and it doesn't know the "extent of compliance" with its requirements.

FWS office managers told the GAO that each biologist is responsible for a certain set of biological opinions, and the individual biologist is responsible for tracking associated monitoring reports that are required.

"Thus, the extent to which reports are tracked varies by biologist," the GAO reported. "At the field offices we visited, [FWS] biologists could not fully account for required monitoring reports in 40 of 64 consultation files (63%) we reviewed that had reporting requirements with reports due."

GAO identified "several instances where the biologist who had drafted the biological opinion, or was otherwise most familiar with the action, had left the FWS, and the successor biologist had limited knowledge about the action or any required monitoring reports." Without a system, the FWS has lacked "critical information that might have helped mitigate or avert the ultimate loss" of an endangered species.

Conversely, said the GAO, without monitoring reports, the FWS may be overestimating the effects of actions on listed species. Several FWS staff members told GAO that "in the absence of monitoring reports or other information on actual take resulting from an agency action, they assume that what was anticipated in the biological opinion in fact occurred." The lack of a system to track cumulative take exposes the federal agency to vulnerabilities, said the GAO, which include the threat of litigation and the danger that it may have an inaccurate picture of the collective effects consulted-on actions have had on species.

In a letter replying to the GAO report, Will Shafroth, acting assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the department agreed with the findings and recommendations.

Rahall also replied. "The new leadership at the Department of the Interior gives me hope that the GAO recommendations will be implemented to strengthen America's conservation law," he said.

The report, GAO-09-550, is available at www.gao.gov.

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