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Politics undercut species act, suits say

In a twist, an Interior Department investigation provides much of the grist for the legal action.

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Wiped out across most of its range in the American Southwest, the Mexican garter snake was considered a shoo-in for listing under the Endangered Species Act. It got nothing.

Neither did the Mississippi gopher frog. Though listed as endangered in 2001, the now-rare amphibian got not a single acre of habitat set aside on its behalf. The loach minnow, once common in Arizona and New Mexico rivers, saw 143,680 acres of proposed critical habitat chopped by more than half.

In each case, Bush administration political appointees overrode federal scientists' recommendations, with little or no justification, according to six lawsuits filed Thursday by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an endangered species advocacy group.

The Bush administration is no stranger to being sued under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But in a tack that could signal a major new legal challenge, last week's suits mark one of the few times Interior Department officials have been sued not merely for bureaucratic foot-dragging, but because of deliberate political interference with the ESA, observers say.

"This wave of lawsuits is different – and what makes them so different is that the agency itself and its inspector general have provided a lot of compelling evidence of political interference with the proper functioning of the act," says J.B. Ruhl, a law professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee and an expert on the ESA.

A big factor in the CBD's legal fusillade hinges on the April release of a scathing report by the Interior Department's inspector general on the actions of Julie MacDonald, the department's former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. The report found numerous questionable actions on endangered species and criticized her release of internal documents to outside groups opposed to the ESA.

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