Center for Biological Diversity

Center for Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is a wealthy and radical anti-development activist and litigation organization that specializes in manipulating the Endangered Species Act to prevent resource production and human activity. Its activities have involved breaking the law – including a shoplifting conviction for its founder – and framing innocent people to ruin their lives and livelihoods.

Despite its hard-left anti-corporate stance, it has collected large donations from Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Microsoft and the ExxonMobil Foundation. It also enjoys support from some of the largest left-wing foundations in America, including the Tides Foundation, The New York Times Company Foundation, Rockefeller Family Fund, and Pew Charitable Trusts. The Center for Biological Diversity has incorporated several times in three different states, has changed its name and address and merged into a holding company, which is not only puzzling, but also makes tracking its activities, officers, and funding difficult.

In 2002, CBD was caught inserting falsified evidence of range damage into the federal grazing permit file of an Arizona ranching company the group had targeted for destruction. The wronged rancher took CBD to court in 2005, and a guilty verdict at trial required CBD to pay $600,000 in damages.

Ripe for Abuse: Endangered Species Act

The Center’s mission, as stated on its 2014 IRS Form 990, is “to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species needs to survive.”

CBD focuses on lands and waters because its major weapon, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), is mostly about habitat – lands and waters – not the officially listed plants and animals that occupy the lands and waters. “Habitat” covers all lands and waters, government owned and private property. “Critical Habitat” is a designation that empowers agencies to impose severe measures to enforce the Act. Critical habitat is defined as specific areas:

  • within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing, if they contain physical or biological features essential to conservation, and those features may require special management considerations or protection; and
  • outside the geographical area occupied by the species if the agency determines that the area itself is essential for conservation.

Federal protection measures are notoriously unsuccessful: The number of saved species “delisted” from endangerment is much smaller than expected – only 1.3 percent of the 2,105 species on the list as of 2013. Federal agencies counter that only 0.5 percent of species placed on the list have become extinct, which could also show that the listed species was not endangered in the first place. Federal agencies also have no incentive to delist species because delisting reduces their workload, their appropriations, and their power.

Endangered species penalties are often draconian. In the extreme, if you dig a flower bed in your own backyard and harm the habitat of an endangered spider or daisy, under ESA’s Section 11(b), you could get a year in federal prison and a $50,000 fine for each violation. Many such absurd cases are on record.

Since the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the snail darter case stopped Tennessee’s $100 million Tellico Dam in mid-construction, the Endangered Species Act has trumped economics, property rights, and all else. The high court fashioned a virtually omnipotent bludgeon in a single sentence of its ruling: “Congress intended endangered species to be afforded the highest of priorities.” In effect, the Supreme Court’s ESA ruling meant productive people would be afforded the lowest of priorities. Congress had to pass a special exemption for the dam to be completed, and project agencies can now seek an exemption from certain sections of the law from a special committee.

The CBD has learned to exploit the language of the ESA, and subsequent court rulings, to the point of abuse. It searches for endangered species, petitions to have them listed under the ESA, and demands their “critical habitat” be shown as lines on a map of their making. This expensive and time-consuming tactic forces lands and waters that any species occupies – or even could occupy – to be “protected” by the government, stopping any human activity there. CBD also works to gain positions on federal advisory committees for themselves or their allies to further influence the agencies that control habitat.

The number of people CBD has put out of work – and the residents they have kept from something as environmentally benign as collecting firewood for winter survival – has been the subject of many media reports. Here are two: New York Times, “In New Mexico, an Order on Elusive Owl Leaves Residents Angry, and Cold“; Los Angeles Times, “Firewood Issue Fuels Battle in New Mexico Mountains : Forests: Villagers say suit limiting access to key heating source puts wildlife protection ahead of human needs.”

Background & History

The Center for Biological Diversity is a 501(c)(3) non-profit group founded in 1993 in Tucson, Arizona. It claims approximately 625,000 members and online activists, and boasts offices and staff in 10 states from Alaska to Florida and the District of Columbia. CBD has evolved through many forms before becoming what it is today: A wealthy, foundation-backed activist organization that preys on landowners. It began with the meeting of two men, Kieran Suckling and Peter Galvin in New Mexico in 1989.

Inspired by Radical Earth First!

Suckling was in graduate school at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, working on a Ph.D. in philosophy. He held a bachelor’s degree from College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts with a focus on Greek, continental, linguistic, and environmental thought. His Ph.D. dissertation built on that, but took an unusual turn: His topic was the relationship between species extinction and language extinction. This linkage was not a mere academic exercise to Suckling, but a rough battle plan for a public campaign to isolate the natural world from human activity. It was tinged with the counterculture idealism of the 1960s and the political fury of the Vietnam War protests of the 1970s. His furious idealism pushed him to an Earth First! meeting in Jemez Springs, New Mexico on Friday, June 23, 1989.

On that date, Suckling attended an Earth First Round River Rendezvous crackling with “monkeywrenching“ and idealism to put the Earth first and people last. But this Rendezvous was the most significant one in the history of Earth First, and it made a permanent impression on Suckling. It featured Earth First founder and leader Dave Foreman, just two days after he was released from jail after being charged by the FBI with conspiring to damage nuclear facility power lines and a trial date set. Foreman gave a speech saying he wasn’t going anywhere, but he did. It was his last speech to the organization. The terms of his release silenced his customary incitements to vandalism and ended his presence in Earth First. But Foreman’s false assurances didn’t keep the crowd from engaging in its trademark radical “direct action.” Some attendees, including Suckling, chained themselves across a Forest Service road, blocking access to a timber sale. While in jail for this stunt, Suckling said he met a woman named “Sherie” who told him about fellow activist Peter Galvin.

Meeting Peter Galvin

Suckling told High Country News:

“Sherie said, ‘I’m working for this guy, Peter Galvin, doing Mexican spotted owl surveys on the Gila National Forest for the Forest Service. Why don’t I see if I can get you a job?’ Peter hired me, out of a VW van.”

Galvin held a bachelor’s degree from Prescott College, a liberal arts school in Arizona, and a master’s degree from Norwich University in Vermont. He’d been a contract wildlife researcher for the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Arizona Game and Fish Department. Suckling joined him hunting for spotted owls for the Forest Service in Water Canyon, where a timber sale was going on, and found one of the seldom seen owls.

Suckling said, “The Forest Service stopped the sale, then let it resume, saying the company had a contract. We had signed contracts saying we wouldn’t divulge owl locations, but we went the next day to the Silver City Daily Press, with a map that told our story. We were fired within seconds.”

Having lost their jobs, Galvin and Suckling entered the radical environmentalist business. They became acquainted with Todd Schulke, who held a bachelor’s in environmental studies from the left-leaning Evergreen State College in Washington State. Then the last of CBD’s co-founders entered the picture: Dr. Robin Silver, a retired emergency-room physician in Phoenix and a professional wildlife photographer. They formed lasting bonds and still work together.

Almost immediately they figured out that the government wasn’t going to carry out their aims to seal land off from development unless a court forced it to. They needed an issue to gain attention and momentum, and discovered that several New Mexico environmental groups were already interested in reintroducing the Mexican wolf into the United States.

The men filed a lawsuit demanding that the Departments of the Interior and Defense prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to break the logjam that was stopping the recovery program. Suckling became part of the Wolf Action Group, an ad-hoc friendship with no legal existence. Their 1989 lawsuit, Wolf Action Group et al vs. Lujan, et al (decided 1993), actually got the result the plaintiffs wanted.

In 1990, the Suckling faction formed an unincorporated group called the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project, after southwestern New Mexico’s Gila River watershed that includes three national forests. They soon decided their group should focus on the entire Southwest, so on December 9, 1993, they took a more inclusive name – the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity – and formally incorporated as a non-profit organization in New Mexico.



Suckling Arrested for Shoplifting

Michael Kiefer of the Phoenix New Times covered the 1994 news that CBD founder Kieran Suckling was arrested for shoplifting, which resulted in the organization’s board suspending him for three months and barring him from talking to the press for six months.

If being an environmentalist wasn’t enough to turn many of the locals against a man, in 1994 Kieran [Suckling] further sullied his reputation by committing an uncharacteristically stupid act.

He was caught shoplifting a pair of hiking boots and some bedroom slippers at Wal-Mart. He pleaded no contest and was fined $67. He still can’t explain why he did it, other than the stress of the center’s work, compounded by breaking up with a girlfriend.

“I was desperately poor, which is not an excuse,” he says. “It was a bad combination of poverty and stupidity – mostly the latter. And I hurt the environmental movement down there.”

Peter [Galvin] was horrified.

“If Peter had had his way, I would have been fired,” Kieran says. Peter wanted Kieran to be reassigned for a year, but the center’s board decided instead to suspend him from the director’s job for three months and bar him from talking to the media for six months.

The locals began calling him “The Shoeman.” And the other New Mexico environmental groups worried that Kieran had lost “his moral compass.” Some cut him off altogether.

A year later, it was time to move on anyway.

No one remembers exactly when the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project became the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity [State records show it was December 9, 1993]. The latter name emerged sometime in 1994. The group’s interests had spread well beyond the Gila National Forest. They wanted to start canvassing, wanted to increase their membership and get more involved in politics. They needed the infrastructure and liberal attitudes of a bigger city.

A city like Tucson.

Leftist Grassroots Criticism

Smaller grassroots groups, which are allied with CBD philosophically, have nonetheless publicly criticized CBD for its lavish spending. CBD reported $14,036,639 of revenue in 2014, and spent half of that paying officers, staff, and lawyers. The organization also spent another $933,031 on stylish creative media in their fundraising campaigns in 2014.

Some purist grassroots groups detest the grant-driven Center for Biological Diversity as a tool of the “Eco Barons“: Michael Donnelly, leader of an all-volunteer forest protection group in the Oregon Cascades, wrote in Counterpunch in July 2012:

“Corporate funders of the ‘grassroots’ Center for Biological Diversity included the likes of Goldman Sachs, the Bank of America, and Microsoft. The fact that a group funded by the world’s leading capitalist elites [claims itself] as grassroots demonstrates how desperately well-meaning environmentalists cling to the illusion that by working with capitalists (not the grassroots) they will be able to counter the destruction wrought on the planet by capitalists.” Donnelly noted that CBD, “in 2008 received support from elite philanthropic bodies that included the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the Environment Now Foundation, Tides Foundation, ExxonMobil Foundation, The New York Times Company Foundation, and even the “big green” environmental outfit, The Wilderness Society.”

Mexican Spotted Owl

The Mexican spotted owl was listed as a threatened species on March 16, 1993.  One of the factors considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in listing the spotted owl was “the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of habitat or range.”

When the Mexican spotted owl issue erupted with wide publicity in the South­west several years later, it frightened many of the people of New Mexico. They recalled the 1994 Audubon Society lawsuit over the Northern Spotted Owl and how it shut down a substantial part of the federal timber harvest, resulting in the closure of 187 mills in Oregon, Washington and California and the loss of 22,654 jobs – and concentrated the timber industry in the hands of big companies that owned their own private timberlands. Then the big timberland owners felt the Endangered Species Act reaching into their private lands and moved out, leaving thousands jobless and California’s North Coast economy moribund.

New Mexicans’ fears were justified. Arizona’s forest products industry was decimated in 1996 by a law­suit brought by the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. It extended a nine-month ban on commercial log­ging in 11 Southwestern national forests. U.S. District Judge Carl Muecke refused to lift the ban, which continued to close down sawmill after sawmill.

The Southwest Forest Alliance then came into the picture, as described in Undue Influence:

The Campaign went to work, but soon ran into a public relations fiasco. When news of the Pew grant broke in late 1995, the commissioners of Rio Arriba County in northern New Mexico were furious. This sparsely settled county of mostly Hispanics and Apaches was in upheaval over a lawsuit filed by two Campaign members, Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians and John Talberth of the Forest Conservation Council. The suit, like those envisioned in the Campaign’s proposal, was supposed to protect the threatened Mexican spotted owl, but had forced a halt to logging and restricted firewood gathering, even though owls had only been found in one remote area. It was the firewood that ignited first.

For hundreds of years, rural Hispanics have gathered firewood here. This is their land under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, given to them in Spanish land grants as far back as the late 17th century. It was bad enough when the Forest Service took control in the early 1900s.

Now they found that a green group lawsuit was keeping them from their firewood and their local logging, and that some new Campaign was planning to do the same to everybody in the Southwest. In December, 1995, angry Hispanics joined timber and mining workers in Santa Fe, where they hanged and burned an effigy of Hitt and Talberth.

“Environmentalists haven’t wanted to take the blame for their actions,” said Max Cordova, leader of the 300 families of the Truchas Land Grant. “Until they recognize that, how can we deal with them?”

The conflict attracted national media, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CBS, NBC and talk radio – but, not the way Audubon and Pew planned it. The stories pitted the poor families and their survival against white, urban environmentalists more concerned about a bird than about people.

The L.A. Times wrote: Antonio DeVargas, who organized last week’s demonstration and mock hanging, once led a campaign to scale back logging by a foreign-owned timber corporation that local people feared would denude the forests and leave local communities without a timber supply. But when the litigation over the owl threatened to put his homegrown logging operation, La Compania Ocho, out of business, said De Vargas, it was time to part company with the environmentalists.

“It turns out they are no different from anyone else who has come in here,” he said. “They just want to take control over our destiny.”

De Vargas wrote a stinging three-page critique of the Campaign proposal, concluding: “In short, the organizers will seek to suspend, through the legal system and media, all current economic activities of those who have subsisted on the land for generations. The forests will thus be preserved for posterity and incidentally, for those many monied interests who enjoy or profit from recreational usage, and who contribute to the Audubon Society.”

But Pew’s money and Audubon’s managers said their Campaign had nothing to do with the lawsuit. The Southwest Forest Alliance carried on its mission of rural cleansing until about 2002 when it was dissolved because results did not meet expectations.

Chilton Ranch Defamation


Misleading photo used by CBD.

In July, 2002, the Center for Biological Diversity published on its web site a news advisory alleging that Jim Chilton, and Chilton Ranch & Cattle, based near Arivaca, Arizona, were guilty of mismanaging the Montana Allotment – a federal grazing permit area the Chiltons had managed with award-winning environmental results for years. Attached to the news advisory were two appendices which contained photos allegedly showing damage to the environment caused by the Chilton’s cattle. The Center subsequently issued a second separate press release describing the pictures as showing the “devastation” caused by cattle. This press release was reprinted in a local paper.

CBD’s news advisory remained published on its website after the center had abandoned its administrative appeal with the Forest Service. Moreover, the news advisory contained outright falsehoods and the photos contained in the appendices were false and misleading. At least four of the photos were not even taken on the Montana Allotment. Others showed a mining site, a deer camp, and, the site of an annual May Day festival where hundreds of people, including the Center’s photographer, had recently camped. It was part of a long history of attacks by CBD against the Chiltons – including prior lawsuits, and a fraudlent complaint to the U.S. Forest Service.

Mr. Chilton’s attorney notified CBD as to the libelous nature of the news advisory and accompanying photos and informed the center of the need to remove the defamatory and untrue material. CBD ignored the demand, forcing Mr. Chilton to file a lawsuit to protect his name.

After a lengthy trial, the jury returned a verdict in January 2005 stating that CBD lied in its news advisory as well as in several of the photos. The jury awarded judgment in favor of Mr. Chilton and Chilton Ranch, awarding $100,000 in actual damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. CBD’s lawyers asked the trial judge to set aside the verdice, but he refused. An examination of the photos published by CBD, compared to photos of the surrounding area, show why the jury found in favor of Chilton and against the CBD.

On June 30, 2005, CBD filed an appeal, asking the Arizona Court of Appeals to review the jury’s verdict. On December 6, 2006, the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division 2, issued an opinion upholding the jury’s verdict and award. At oral argument on the appeal, the three appellate judges saw some of the same photos (including photo 18) that were presented to the jury. The opinion fully upheld not only the monetary award, but also the arguments that were presented by the Chilton Ranch and Jim Chilton.

In 2007, the Arizona Supreme Court similarly rejected the CBD’s appeal. The center paid Chilton the $500,000 punitive damages, while their liability insurance paid the $100,000 actual damages penalty. At the end of this process, Jim Chilton said: “I wanted to beat those liars and I did.”

Incorporations and a Holding Company Merger

The Center for Biological Diversity has incorporated several times in three different states and has changed its name and address and merged into a holding company. This is not only puzzling, but also makes it difficult to track all its activities, officers, and funding.

Corporate records show the following sequence of incorporation:

  • Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, Inc. incorporated December 9, 1993 in Pinos Altos, New Mexico.
  • Name changed to Center for Biological Diversity, Inc. certificate of amendment August 2, 1999 in Tucson, Arizona.
  • Center for Biological Diversity, Inc. incorporated April 19, 2002 in San Francisco, California.
  • Center for Biological Diversity, Inc. incorporated July 10, 2002 in Tucson, Arizona.
  • Center for Biological Diversity, Inc. incorporated November 3, 2010 in Oakland, California.
  • Center for Biological Diversity, Inc. merged with Center for Biological Diversity Holding Company, Inc. November 21, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona.
  • Center for Biological Diversity, Inc. incorporated September 24, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

There are two “top donor” lists in this profile. One shows the early donors whose grants do not appear on Foundation Search records after 2007, and another that shows later donors whose grants do not appear on records before 2008. Because of these breaks in the records, a number of donors and grants are probably not shown, but some are known to exist in older but now inaccessible or destroyed databases.

The serious financial and public damage the Center for Biological Diversity brought upon itself by attacking rancher Jim Chilton was sufficiently severe to prompt measures to reduce such risks. Although CBD has made no public statement why the holding company maneuver was made, a common purpose would be to reduce risk to the organization’s officers.

The Center for Biological Diversity Holding Company, Inc 2011 Form 990-EZ

The IRS allows 501(c)(3) organizations with small or no income in a year to file Form EZ


The Center for Biological Diversity Holding Company, Inc Shell Company statement

Holding companies allow the reduction of risk for the owners or officers


Source: Center for Biological Diversity Holding Company, Inc 2011 Form 990-EZ


Data from 2014 Form 990, most recent available in 2016

  • Grants received $12,911,671
  • Program Service Revenue (legal refunds, contracts) $1,360,957
  • Investment income -$251,858
  • Other revenue (in-kind gifts, securities [loss]) $15,869
  • Total revenue $14,036,639
  • Salaries and employee benefits $6,891,355
  • Kieran Suckling compensation, $203,302
  • Peter Galvin compensation $186,759
  • Robin Silver compensation $109,369
  • Total fundraising expenses $933,031
  • Total assets $17,636,286
  • Total liabilities $500,516
  • Net assets $17,135,770

Early Center for Biological Diversity Donors 2003 – 2007

Records show 116 grants totaling $4,793,046. Top ten are shown.

  3. WYSS FOUNDATION $232,000

Source: Foundation Search

Top 30 Center for Biological Diversity Donors 2008 – 2014

Records show 386 grants from 128 foundations totaling $21,871,003       

  1. SANDLER FOUNDATION $5,576,000
  5. WYSS FOUNDATION $535,000
  9. TIDES FOUNDATION $285,466
  11. TROUT UNLIMITED $229,246
  12. MWC FOUNDATION $200,000
  20. COMMON STREAM INC $90,000
  22. SIERRA CLUB $63,000
  29. WARSH MOTT LEGACY $30,000

Source: Foundation Search


The Center for Biological Diversity is cited in 692 Congressional Research Service Policy Reports from 1995 to 2016. (Paywall)

Source: Legistorm.