Documents: The Biden administration misled the public on a secret plan to weaken protections against the whooping crane

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WASHINGTON—The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been planning to weaken whooping crane protections since early 2021, according to federal documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity.

All the while, officials appear to have deliberately misled the public about their intention to downgrade endangered birds to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, lest that the decision triggers intense public scrutiny and backlash.

Even though the Service has nearly completed a rule proposal to downgrade the Whooping Crane and has developed a public outreach plan to message the proposal, the agency continues to deny that it seriously considered weakening protections. . The Service’s months-long strategy of hiding this information has been exposed in emails, talking points and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

“It is appalling that the Biden administration is considering weakening whooping crane protections when these birds’ home will be underwater decades from now due to climate change and rising sea levels” , said Stephanie Kurose, senior policy specialist at the Center. “It is doubly shameful that the administration has gone to such lengths to keep the public in the dark about this disastrous plan.”

To delay public alert, the Service omitted the Whooping Crane proposal from its public-facing work plan for downlisting and delisting the species. Gary Frazer, Assistant Director of Ecological Services, knew that Service staff did not want to include the decommissioning proposal in the work plan and questioned that strategy. But ultimately, the agency didn’t include any information in the work plan, which was later released in September 2021.

In November, the Service began work on its outreach plan, which included an internal communications strategy used for “high profile or controversial announcements.” The agency’s talking points conceded that the criteria for upgrading the crane under its recovery plan had only been “partially met” and that “the future of whooping cranes in the wild is n is not guaranteed without continuous protections”. Still, the Service was proposing to remove some protections, including measures to minimize collisions with transmission lines and other structures, which would hamper further recovery.

It wasn’t until December — when the Biden administration released its unified fall agenda — that the public was told the Service was assessing the status of the Whooping Crane. But the notice misleadingly stated that “based on the reassessment, the FWS may propose to downlist or delete the species, unless the FWS determines that no change in its status is warranted”, even though the proposed rule was already set to go forward.

The documents also show that when agency officials were asked about the Service’s intentions, they continued to claim that “no decision has been made regarding the Whooping Crane’s ESA status,” despite the fact that the proposed downgrading rule had been reviewed by headquarters. the staff and the agency had already written press materials celebrating the decision.

“The Service knows this is indefensible, so officials are saying everything they can to avoid coming forward,” Kurose said. “It is troubling that the agency ignores the best available science and appears to be following the same anti-conservation tactics of the previous administration. Whooping cranes are endangered and they need all the protection we can give them. »

The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America, with males standing nearly 5 feet tall. Whooping cranes are the rarest crane species in the world, with only 506 individuals in the Texas population and 79 individuals in the Eastern population. When the snow-white birds are alarmed, they emit a loud, single-note vocalization, which is likely the origin of their common name.

The Service’s own recovery plan calls for at least 1,000 feral cranes before they can be downlisted to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act. Whooping cranes are threatened by sea level rise caused by climate change, habitat degradation and destruction, pesticides, shooting, collisions with power lines, and the limited genetics of the remnant population .

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