Pushing a massive development project forward, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) embraced false information and flagrantly reversed findings of staff biologists on the endangered San Bernardino kangaroo rat.

The San Bernardino kangaroo rat (SBKR) has suffered catastrophic loss of its floodplain habitat along rivers and creeks in the Inland Empire. The three remaining populations are genetically depleted. In 2002, the Santa Ana River population was effectively doomed by Seven Oaks Dam. Only one – on Lytle and Cajon Creeks – still has a natural creek ecosystem.

A massive sprawl development called Lytle Creek Ranch would force the animals into an inhospitable, active flood channel, and remove the terrace habitat that is infrequently flooded or which remains above flood waters, called refugia. Refugia are essential for the animal’s survival. For these reasons, staff biologists in Palm Springs recommended a 365-acre reduction in the project footprint to save the terraces. But in 2018, managers in Region 8 decided not to make significant changes to the project. This occurred simultaneously with appeals by the developer to the Trump Interior Department and Republican Members of Congress. 

In a “consultation” under the Endangered Species Act, FWS produces a document called a “biological opinion” that determines whether a project will “jeopardize” the survival and recovery of a species. In this case, when science did not support a predetermined conclusion of “no jeopardy,” FWS invoked alternative “facts.” For example, the opinion used the applicant’s survey data, which had been previously condemned by staff biologists. As a result, the amount of occupied habitat lost miraculously declined from 287 to 88 acres. The Carlsbad office – contrary to publicly available aerial imagery – also readily accepted the baseless assertion that vital terrace habitat was disconnected from the creek, and therefore of no value. “Mitigation” consists of translocating trapped animals into poor quality habitat, a method the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance – the expert on translocation – predicts will fail. Genetic depletion was ignored. SBKR authorities have deemed this biological opinion a devastating blow for a species already on the very brink of extinction. 

Since its start in 2013, EHL closely monitored the federal consultation, tracking it with Freedom of Information Act requests. We retained expert biologists, hydrologists, planners, and economists to counter the studies submitted by the applicant and to develop a better alternative. We also commented upon successive drafts of the biological opinion. At the end of the day, however, the best available scientific information was rejected.

Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers is processing its related permits for the project. Subsequently, the project could face state regulation if EHL’s petition to protect the SBKR under the California Endangered Species Act is granted. While it is very difficult to challenge agency decisions in court, EHL will do everything possible to stop this disaster for endangered wildlife and the breach of public trust it represents.