SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 26, 2010 (ENS) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to revisit the politically twisted 2003 Bush administration decision to strip a California minnow called the Sacramento splittail of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The settlement was reached Friday in a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity against the federal government on behalf of the small fish found only in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, streams of the Central Valley, and the Napa and Petaluma rivers.

The settlement requires the Service to make a new 12-month finding on whether listing the splittail is warranted by September 30, 2010. A 30-day public comment period will allow for the submission of additional information by the public.

If the Service determines listing is warranted, it must issue a proposed rule and make a final listing determination by September 29, 2011.

The agency will not be allowed to make a “warranted but precluded” determination, which would place the splittail on the all but useless candidate species list.

“The Sacramento splittail will now have a fighting chance to avoid extinction,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The splittail has declined severely since it was illegally removed from the endangered species list.”

Bush administration official Julie MacDonald, former Interior deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, was found to have improperly tampered with the decision to remove the splittail from protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Although MacDonald was not involved in the initial 2003 decision by Fish and Wildlife Service officials to delist the species, she was “involved extensively and intimately” in the editing of the final decision. Her edits were “voluminous,” including changes to the statistical analysis of splittail population data, the Interior Department Inspector General wrote in a investigation report on her activities released November 27, 2007.

MacDonald, who owned an 80-acre farm in the Yolo Bypass – a floodplain that is key habitat for the splittail – edited the splittail decision in a manner that appeared to benefit her financial interests.

Given that her farm could be subject to restrictions needed to protect the species if it remained on the endangered species list, MacDonald “should have recused herself” from the decision, found then Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney, who now heads the White House’s Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board.

MacDonald resigned in disgrace following the misconduct investigation.

“The delisting of the splittail was one of the more blatant examples of political interference, manipulation of science, and conflict of interest that characterized the Bush administration,” said Miller. “The Obama administration has an opportunity to reverse that legacy.”

Conservation groups first petitioned for federal Endangered Species Act protection for the splittail in 1992, and the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the species in 1994. The agency delayed listing until a court order in a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity forced it to take action.

In 1999 the splittail was listed as a threatened species. After litigation by water agencies challenging the listing, a court ordered the Service to review the status of the splittail. In 2003 the Service removed the splittail from the list despite consensus by agency scientists and fisheries experts that it should retain its protected status.

In 2009 the Center filed a lawsuit against the Service challenging this decision, part of a larger campaign to undo Bush-era decisions that weakened protections for dozens of endangered species.

“Fish and Wildlife’s obligation to use sound science in evaluating the splittail should result in protected status,” said Miller. “Federal protection is needed to prevent the extinction of the splittail and other native fish species that share its habitat in the Delta and Central Valley.”

The Sacramento splittail, Pogonichthys macrolepidotus, is a minnow native to the upper San Francisco Estuary and the Central Valley. The common name comes from the shape of the tail fin – the upper lobe is larger than the lower lobe.

The splittail once occurred in lakes and rivers throughout the Central Valley as far north as Redding on the Sacramento River and as far south as the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, as well as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, but the species is extirpated from all but a fraction of its former range.

The remnant populations of splittail in the Delta require adequate freshwater outflow and periodic floodplain inundation to thrive.

Today, splittail are threatened by unsustainable water diversions, the effects of dams, wetlands habitat loss, pesticide impacts, and predation and competition by introduced species.

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