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Representative Helen Chenoweth (R-ID), in her first two months as a member of the US House of Representatives, accuses the federal government of sending “black helicopters” filled with “armed agency officials” to terrorize Idaho citizens. Chenoweth, who has extensive contacts among area militias and will be characterized as the militia’s “best friend” in Congress (see May 2, 1995), is repeating a canard often used by far-right extremists who believe the UN and the federal government will use “black helicopters” filled with foreign troops to impose tyranny on US citizens. In a press release, Chenoweth says the federal government is violating the Idaho Constitution by using “armed agency officials and helicopters” to enforce the Endangered Species Act and other fish and wildlife regulations. The language of the press release implies that if a federal agent is armed and in Idaho, it is a violation of the Idaho Constitution. Chenoweth orders the government to immediately cease its alleged actions, and in the release, threatens Assistant Agriculture Secretary Jim Lyons by saying, “If it does not, I guarantee you I will be your worst nightmare for at least the next two years.” Chenoweth later tells a reporter, who asks about the black helicopters: “I have never seen them. But enough people in my district have become concerned that I can’t just ignore it. We do have some proof.” Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, says, “All I can say is, we have never had helicopters, have not flown them as part of any endangered-species activity, and we’ve always worked hand in glove with local officials.” (Egan 5/2/1995; Sierra Magazine 5/1996)
Interior Department official Sue Ellen Woodbridge is contacted, to her surprise and initial disbelief, by Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney is concerned with a situation developing in Oregon, a battleground electoral state that the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign had lost by less than half a percentage point in November 2000. Drought-stricken ranchers and farmers—largely Republican in makeup—are clamoring for the irrigation water they need to keep their croplands and pastures green. (Becker and Gellman 6/27/2007) The farmers and ranchers of the area are key to the re-election of Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR). (Bacher 7/16/2007) But federal biologists say that the Endangered Species Act gives the government no choice: if the water is released, two imperiled species of fish will be gravely impacted. Both science and the law are on the side of the fish, but Cheney steps in, apparently more out of political concerns for Oregon than for the farmers and ranchers. According to Cheney’s aides, he first looks for a way around the law. According to an Oregon congressman who lobbies for the farmers, when Cheney finds no way to circumvent the law, he instead attacks the science protecting the fish (see April 2002). The government eventually declares, in spite of all scientific evidence, that the water release and subsequent draining of the Klamath River basin will not harm the fish. Instead, the water release causes the largest fish kill in modern Western history (see September 2002). Cheney’s role in the fish kill will not be revealed until 2007. (Becker and Gellman 6/27/2007) After the Washington Post reveals Cheney’s role in the fish kill, the House will open hearings on Cheney’s activities (see June 27-28, 2007).
The House Natural Resources Committee, led by Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Mike Thompson (D-CA), decides to investigate the role of Vice President Dick Cheney in a 2002 salmon kill (see April 2002) on Northern California’s Klamath River, the largest fish kill in modern Western history (see September 2002). “We know where the smoking gun lays,” says Chris Lawson, a fisherman and president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association. No one in Northern California or Oregon (another state affected by the fish kill) knew of Cheney’s role until a recent story in the Washington Post uncovered Cheney’s successful attempt to subvert both scientific evidence and the Endangered Species Act to allow a water release that drastically lowered the water level in the Klamath. The day the article appears, Thompson and 35 other Democrats call for a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee, saying in a letter that “[t]he ramifications of that salmon kill are still being felt today as returns to the Klamath River are so low that commercial, sport and tribal fishing seasons have been curtailed for the past three years.” A day later, Rahall agrees. The hearing will be held a month later (see August 1, 2007). In October 2002, Thompson piled 500 pounds of dead coho salmon in front of the Interior Department, accusing that agency of “gross mismanagement” in the wildlife disaster. Now Thompson asks, “We know that science was manipulated and the law was violated. Did in fact the vice president of the United States put pressure on mid-level bureaucrats to alter the science and circumvent the law in order to gain political votes for his re-election or the election of other people in Oregon?” Cheney’s office responds to the hearings by saying it is “disappointing the Democrats would rather investigate than legislate,” and that the Post story is nothing more than “a repackaging of old accusations.” Cheney’s office refuses to say whether Cheney will agree to testify before the committee. The reduced river flow in 2002, says Thompson, “wasn’t about salmon or water, it was about electoral votes in Oregon.” Since the fish kill, the courts have prohibited the diversion of Klamath water for agricultural use once the water levels drop below a critical point. But in the years after the fish kill, the salmon catch has been gravely reduced. Commercial fishing in California and Oregon has suffered a more than 90% drop as recently as 2006; Congressional Democrats say the result has been over $60 million in damage to coastal economies. Only in 2007 have the number of young salmon in the Klamath shown indications that salmon numbers may once again be increasing. (Daly 6/28/2007; Kavner 7/9/2007) However, the Klamath salmon are still gravely threatened by rampant fish diseases infesting tens of thousands of juvenile salmon, as well as abnormally high water temperatures and low water levels. (Bacher 7/16/2007)
The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to investigate the role that Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials played in the decision that led to the largest fish kill in modern Western United States history (see Mid-2001 - Early 2002 and June 27-28, 2007). The committee is unable to find conclusive proof that Cheney directly gave the orders that led to the fish kill. A former Interior Department official, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, testifies that Cheney pressured the department to release water in the Klamath River in Northern California, even though the water release would threaten the life cycle of tens of thousands of salmon who live and breed in the river. The water release was to benefit drought-stricken farmers and ranchers in the area. The decision went against the provisions of the Endangered Species Act as well as an overwhelming majority of scientific opinion and the tribal water rights of local Native Americans. Former fisheries biologist Michael Kelly, who worked on the Klamath issue, testifies that he cannot be sure whether Cheney interfered in the situation. “I was aware that President Bush had declared he’d do everything he could to get water to the farms,” Kelly says, and adds that he knew his own superiors were being pressured to speed up assessments and tilt the science to favor the farmers. “I was essentially asked to support a conclusion that made as much sense as 1+1=3,” Kelly says. The biological opinion underlying the plan was “completely bogus and illegal,” he adds. Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) calls the Klamath fish kill “a fiasco” and lambasts Cheney and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for refusing to testify before the committee. “I will not pretend to be surprised [Cheney] declined our invitation,” Rahall says. “But I am obliged to express disappointment at the difficulty we have had in trying to learn the truth and conduct basic oversight over an agency and an administration that have made secrecy and lack of accountability hallmarks of their tenure.” Rahall notes that “[w]hen it comes to political interference and ethical lapses at the department, the Klamath River is just the tip of the iceberg.… I find it difficult to see how we can trust any decision made in an agency that has, time and again, betrayed its own career scientists, repeatedly failed to hold its appointees to ethical standards and so callously disregarded its mission for the sake of political gain.” (Environmental News Service 8/1/2007)
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