February 20, 2015

US Fish and Wildlife stinks to high heaven on sagebrush lizard

The dunes sagebrush lizard. It's a reptile, but it's not half as reptilian as either
former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs or several regional employees of the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
I have blogged more than once about former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs' voluntary, landowner-based plan for habitat conservation, or rather, "conservation," for the dunes sagebrush lizard, most of whose habitat happens to be in the oil-rich Permian Basin of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, and whose voluntary habitat conservators, or "conservators," happen to be oilmen.

I first noted that is was the conservative half of a neoliberal idea that rancher/oil lover/Interior Secretary Kenny Boy Salazar loved, and agreed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in charge of Endangered Species Act issues, should accept. Shock me.

As part of that, I noted that she was being sued by two of the more activist, non-Gang Green environmental agencies, with Center for Biological Diversity in the lead, because the people and groups overseeing her voluntary "conservation" were about as transparent as most things involving Texas government.

Unfortunately, as I noted next, Combs got a federal judge to agree with her that the oversight agency, officially a private entity and therefore exempt from the state's Public Information Act, should stay that way and remain non-transparent, while telling the judge to "just trust them" on how much "habitat conservation" was actually being done, but that her agency should be given legal standing to fight in the lawsuit.

And then, CBD and Defenders of Wildlife, a few months ago, lost in federal district court their attempt to reverse the Fish and Wildlife + Combs + oilmen agreement, discussed here with links.

Well, there's a backstory to this.

At about the time CBD and Defenders were losing their case in district court, Fish and Wildlife, documented here, was entering into a legal settlement with the former top official in Texas, who sued after being pushed out of his job.

And, why was he pushed out of his job?

Because he was fighting Kenny Boy Salazar and Susan Combs on the dunes sagebrush lizard, and saying everything about lack of enforcement and lack of transparency that I and the environmental groups were saying.
One person, however, did lose his job: Fish and Wildlife's top official in Texas, Gary Mowad, who ran afoul of his bosses after raising concerns about the decision to place the long-term survival of the lizard in the hands of those who opposed the listing. 
Mowad had told internal investigators that the federally approved plan to conserve habitat for the reptile through voluntary pacts between the state and landowners was not legal, verifiable or enforceable under the Endangered Species Act.

Oh, but wait, it gets better. 

He has civil service protection, so he couldn't be fired. Instead, like a surplus Japanese salaryman, he got the risutora treatment:
Within three months, Mowad was removed from his job in Austin and transferred to regional offices in New Mexico, where he had no significant work to do, according to testimony by him and colleagues before a judge in a whistleblower case. The power play, he said, forced him to retire prematurely. 
Fish and Wildlife has denied the allegations, but the agency decided to settle with Mowad last October for an undisclosed amount in spite of historically long odds against federal employees winning such cases. ... 
(N)o phone, no computer and no housing awaited Mowad when he arrived in Albuquerque in October 2012. And there was no significant work. He helped put out cookies and drinks for a meeting and afterward collected comment cards from the attendees. 
With no end date for the assignment, Mowad filed a 19-page request for a federal investigation, alleging reprisal for his claims of scientific misconduct within the service.
Those claims of scientific misconduct? Mowad had gone to FWS' Inspector General after it signed off on the Combs plan. And, why did it do that, only a couple of years after Mowad had been named top biologist in Texas for the agency and hired for his specific skills?

Bigger backstory, involving financial/service favors ... and who knows what else.

First, the backstory to the lizard's needs.

It was first identified for ESA listing in 1982. But, as with many other species, through a mix of understaffing and underfunding on one hand, and FWS foot-dragging on the other, it wasn't actually brought up for consideration until 2010. However, with the Permian Basin started to rebound from its latest, Great Recession-caused bust, that looked problematic.

Our story picks up again:
The Fish and Wildlife Service needed to sign off on the Texas plan, and Mowad was asked to assign someone to review it. But Mowad's first two choices — two of his most experienced biologists — were rejected by the agency's deputy regional director, Joy Nicholopoulos, a scientist who led the Texas office before him. 
The third choice? 
(Mowad) asked if Nicholopoulos wanted a biologist named Allison Arnold to lead the review and was told that she did. 
Here’s the real backstory. 
Mowad said he would not assign her without being ordered. The biologists he offered "would just do the science, let the science take 'em where it takes 'em," he testified. But in addition to having less experience, Arnold was living rent-free in a Driftwood house owned by Nicholopoulos, leading him to question whether she had undue influence over the staffer.
Then, Nicholopoulos’ boss, Bemjamin Tuggle, who had touted Mowad’s hiring for the Texas spot, upped the political ante.,
"There was no way we were going to list a lizard in the middle of oil country during an election year," Tuggle said.
That comment, although Tuggle (a Shrub Bush appointee to his position) later claimed he was joking, is what led Mowad to talk to Fish and Wildlife’s inspector general.

So, it's clear that FWS higher-ups, however high the chain of higher-ups goes past Tuggle, had the fix in. And, because of this financial/rental arrangement, they knew who to pick to sign off on Combs' plan.

The rest of the story is worth a read in itself. It discusses Mowad’s whistleblower hearing, including noting that federal employees rarely win them, but that FWS had a documented history of retaliation against employees like this.

It's also an illustration of the bad ethics there, vis-a-vis the rental situation. If anybody should have been disciplined by FWS, both Nicholopoulos and Arnold should have been suspended without pay.

Of course, to environmentalists and supporters who are familiar with FWS, none of this is very surprising. To people who know Gale Norton as BushCo's Interior Secretary, Tuggle's behavior in particular isn't that surprising. Nor is Ken Salazar, the slightly more pale green, more neoliberal follow-up to Norton.

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