Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Dan Ashe’s road to becoming director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may hit speedbumps from northern Rockies senators, who likely will pose tough questions over plans to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves and other species.
Ashe, a 15-year agency employee who served as science adviser from 2003 to 2009 before becoming deputy director, was picked in December to succeed the late Sam Hamilton as director of the agency with a $2.5 billion annual budget that manages fish, wildlife and their habitats.
Since Hamilton’s death one year ago from a heart condition, the agency has been led by acting Director Rowan Gould.
Ashe, who will deliver testimony Feb. 15 to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is generally well-respected in the environmental community but will inherit tough choices implementing Obama administration plans to delist wolves and grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone region.
Tom Strickland, Interior Department’s outgoing assistant secretary who oversees FWS, last week said the agency is continuing discussions with Montana, Idaho and Wyoming on potential legislation to return wolf management to the states after a federal judge last summer restored federal protections for the species, ending managed hunts in Montana and Idaho.
Western members of the committee including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) may seek assurances that Ashe will help broker a solution on wolf management in their states. Strickland said Interior is still waiting on Wyoming to develop a sustainable management plan that will ensure the species’ continued viability.
“We in Montana know how to manage wolves,” Baucus said this week after he and Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester introduced a bill to return wolf management to Montana and Idaho. “We know better than the federal government does.”
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, speculated that Tester, who faces a challenge from Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) for his Senate seat in 2012, might demand a path forward on wolves as a condition of Ashe’s confirmation.
“It’s going to be a big issue in his re-election campaign,” Ruch said. “If Senator Tester can show that he hung a wolf pelt on his Senate door, that will be politically good for him.”
Delisting the species will not be easy. Environmental groups have successfully sued Interior to restore protections, arguing that additional recovery is needed for the species to maintain genetic diversity.
“We have found him to be forthright and reliable,” Ruch said. “However, we’re concerned one of Dan Ashe’s first assignments will be to negotiate legislation removing wolves and grizzly bears from coverage under the Endangered Species Act, which is a tough task.”
But if his time as science adviser is any indication, Ashe will work hard to make sure agency decisions are backed by the best available science, Ruch said. Ashe played an integral role responding to a 2005 complaint that agency biologists had botched an evaluation of the habitat needs of panthers, Ruch added.
“Dan Ashe was one of the people who made sure the review took place,” which resulted in an rare admission of error by the agency, Ruch said. “This complaint of scientific fraud was handled honestly, and he had something to do with that.”
Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former FWS director who worked with Ashe when he served as chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, in December said her confirmation as director in 1997 was held up in the Senate over her stance on grizzlies in western Montana.
“Dan is coming to Congress at a very dicey time,” said Rappaport, who opposes the delisting of wolves. “It’s going to be on Dan’s shoulders to help navigate this as director, but no person is better equipped.”
Ashe and Strickland last fall said they intend to remove both wolves and grizzlies from Endangered Species Act protection and would seek congressional action for delisting wolves in the northern Rockies.
Matt Dempsey, a spokesperson for committee Republicans, provided few details on what the minority would ask of Ashe but said his confirmation will likely garner a lot of attention.
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) spoke with Ashe recently and will be seeking information on how he plans to handle off-highway vehicle use on a wildlife refuge near the White River in Arkansas as well as how he plans to manage aquaculture in the state, according to a spokesperson.
Groups in Arkansas are concerned over how they will maintain healthy fish ponds in the east-central part of the state with the regulation of invasive species.
Ashe’s commitment to science and his help engineering FWS’s climate change adaptation strategy will likely win him points with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), whose state’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge has experienced wetlands loss due to climate change and rising sea levels, according to his office.
If confirmed, Ashe will also be under pressure from environmental groups to address a growing list of endangered species proposals and acquire lands to protect critical migration corridors.
“Dan’s a good guy and a good scientist,” said Bill Snape, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity who has known Ashe since he served on the former House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries.
But Snape said it is unclear how much liberty Ashe will be given under Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to let science drive decisionmaking on endangered species and those awaiting protections.
“There have clearly been points in time where Salazar exerted a heavy hand that was very [George W.] Bush-like,” Snape said.