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Obama's Fish & Wildlife Service Nominee Ignored Endangered Species Act
WASHINGTON, DC, June 23, 2009 (ENS) - The man nominated by President Barack Obama to administer the Endangered Species Act rarely used it to protect species, according to agency statistics released Monday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Sam Hamilton, nominated June 9 to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been the most reluctant to enforce the Endangered Species Act of any comparable official in the country, said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

A 30 year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service, since 1997 Hamilton has headed the 10 state Southeastern Region, which has more endangered species issues than most other regions.

Sam Hamilton (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Fish and Wildlife Service records covering the three year period 2004 through 2006, the latest available, show that Hamilton's region conducted 5,974 consultations on development permits or other federal agency actions.

Yet Hamilton issued only one objection, called a jeopardy opinion or letter. By contrast, during the same period the Fish and Wildlife Service Rocky Mountain Region had only 586 consultations but issued 100 jeopardy opinions.

Still, the President has confidence in Hamilton. "Sam has the proven experience in developing innovative conservation initiatives, resolving complex and controversial environmental issues and delivering significant wildlife conservation across the U.S," President Obama wrote in his nomination of Hamilton. "He is highly dedicated to leading change to more effectively accomplish the Fish and Wildlife Service's mission."

"Under Sam Hamilton, the Endangered Species Act has become a dead letter," said Ruch, noting that the White House announcement on Hamilton touted his "innovative conservation" work. "Apparently, the word 'no' is not part of 'innovative' in Mr. Hamilton's lexicon."

"Sam's long-stretching career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service as well as his vast and varied experience make him an excellent candidate for Director, US Fish & Wildlife Service," wrote Obama.

Hamilton began his career with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1979. As director of the Southeastern Region, he was the senior operating executive with full strategic planning and management responsibility for a $484 million budget and a 1,500 person work-force operating in 10 states and the Caribbean.

He has overseen the region's response to ecosystem restoration after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated coastal wetlands, wildlife refuges and other wildlife habitat along the Gulf of Mexico in 2005.

"He provided FWS leadership and oversight to the Interior's Everglades' restoration work which has been the largest ecosystem restoration project in the country," President Obama wrote. "He has represented the Secretary of the Interior on coastal Louisiana wetlands restoration work and has been responsible for oversight and management of 350+ federally listed threatened and endangered species."

The ability of Fish and Wildlife Service to require consultation under the Endangered Species Act was restored in April by the Obama administration, reversing a controversial regulation issued in the last days of the Bush presidency.

In reinstating mandatory consultations, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited consultations as being vital for "ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law."

"Hamilton's region includes Florida, where there has been intense political pressure against any federal actions perceived to impede development," said Ruch.

Reflecting that pressure, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists from the agency's Vero Beach office wrote in a 2005 joint letter that their supervisors had forbidden them from writing jeopardy opinions on any project, no matter how destructive.

In 2005, PEER surveyed more than 1,400 FWS biologists, ecologists and botanists working on Endangered Species Act and other wildlife protection programs across the country. Survey results for scientists working within Hamilton's region found that:

  • Nearly half (49%) of FWS respondents cited cases where "commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention"

  • A similar percentage (46%) said they had been "directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making ... findings that are protective of species"

  • More than a third (36%) feared "retaliation" for merely expressing "concerns about the biological needs of species and habitats" and a similar number felt they were "not allowed to do my job as a scientist."
Ruch points out that "under Hamilton virtually no species was listed and no critical habitat was designated except by lawsuit, and even then the habitat was severely truncated."

Endangered Florida panther (Photo by George Gentry)

Others support Hamilton's nomination.

"Hamilton is the right person at the right time," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, who called the nominee "a pioneer in innovative strategies to protect and restore wildlife habitat."

"In the face of climate change and other challenges to national wildlife refuges and treasured landscapes, it is more important than ever to have a director who has both the scientific expertise and vision to achieve lasting conservation results," said Hirsche.

Dr. Alan Wentz, senior group manager for conservation, communications and marketing for Ducks Unlimited is also supportive, saying, "Sam Hamilton is the consummate professional. He has accomplished great things for wildlife in his many years of work with the Fish and Wildlife Service."

"Sam is a dedicated, respected and extraordinary Fish and Wildlife Service employee. His years of experience, both in the field and as an administrator, provide the knowledge and leadership skills to confront the challenges of the nation's largest fish and wildlife agency," commented Wildlife Management Institute President Steve Williams, who was the Fish and Wildlife Service director under President George W. Bush from 2002-2005. "He understands the important role of hunters and anglers and the intricacies of threatened and endangered species issues."

But Ruch is not persuaded. "To end the cycle of Endangered Species Act lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs a director who is willing to follow the law and actually implement the Act," he said. "Sam Hamilton's record suggests that he will extend the policies of Bush era rather than bring needed change."

Hamilton's nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.



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