Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The Sacramento splittail fish does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday.

The decision puts the Obama administration on the same side as a former Bush administration official who was accused of improper political interference in dozens of endangered species cases, including a 2003 decision to remove the Sacramento splittail from the threatened species list.

Julie MacDonald resigned as deputy assistant Interior secretary in 2007 after an inspector general's report found that she bullied federal scientists and improperly leaked information about a host of endangered species decisions to private groups.

MacDonald, who oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service, was heavily involved in delisting the Sacramento splittail while owning an 80-acre farm in the creature's California habitat.

Biologists in the Sacramento field office had concluded the fish, which is found only in California's Central Valley, should remain on the threatened list, but were overruled by higher ranking officials, including MacDonald. Protections for the small fish could have required flooding the area near MacDonald's property. That could have had an impact on crops or required farmers to pay to install fish screens.

In its latest decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service said scientific data failed to show a significant long-term decline of splittail populations. Instead, the agency cited "natural fluctuations" that demonstrate a pattern of successful spawning during wet years, followed by reduced spawning during dry years.

An environmental group blasted the decision, which it said was made without up-to-date fish-count surveys.

"This decision is clearly not based on sound science. This species is basically near extinction," said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based group that sued the Interior Department last year. The department agreed to review the 2003 decision on the Sacramento splittail as part of a settlement earlier this year.

Miller called the latest ruling, which mirrors the 2003 finding, "pretty outrageous."

Under President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, "the Fish and Wildlife Service has not been exactly friendly to implementing the Endangered Species Act," Miller said. "It doesn't seem like Fish and Wildlife has changed much."

Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said research showed no evidence that water diversions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta had significantly affected splittail populations.

Federal scientists have recommended water cutbacks in the region to safeguard the threatened delta smelt and other native species. Farmers argued the limits have caused crop losses and damaged the local environment.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press

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