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On the last day of September, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to
rewrite the Endangered Species Act, putting forth a weakened version authored
by Republican Congressman Richard Pombo called the Threatened and Endangered Species
Recovery Act. But to some observers, the war on endangered species protection
has been going on much longer than that. Just in the last few months: Fifty-two
thousand acres have been opened to oil and gas exploration in the Los Padres National
Forest, next to sensitive habitat for the precariously introduced California condor;
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed rolling back critical habitat
for the California red-legged frog by 82 percent and denied critical habitat to
the endangered Channel Islands fox; and open-hunting season may soon be declared
on Yellowstone-adjacent grizzly bears, which were recently pronounced recovered
by the Interior Department even as development presses into their habitat. Add
to that a series of science-minded Fish and Wildlife reports rewritten within
the administration to better suit industry — reports on everything from grazing
rights to sage grouse to marbled murrelets — and it’s hard to imagine how species
protection could get much worse.
“There’ve been a lot of shenanigans lately” having to do with endangered species protection, says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona. “The Bush administration has put out a series of policies in the last year to 18 months that have severely undermined the act administratively. It put out a policy trying to exempt the pesticides from review under the act; it put out a second policy that would allow the Forest Service to exempt its timber sales from outside review; it put out another policy banning federal agencies from quantifying the economic benefits of critical habitat.”Suckling considers the last move especially irksome. “When industry complains about habitat protection they exaggerate every possible cost,” he says. “But the Bush administration by policy forbids any calculation of the benefit that comes from protecting habitat. All these jokers not only want to have their cake and eat it too, but smash it in the public’s face.”But there is also good news. For starters, the person Suckling says is “most responsible” for tinkering with Fish and Wildlife’s science, an assistant secretary in the Department of the Interior named Craig Manson, announced his impending resignation last week, leaving open a position that has to be confirmed by the Senate. Given the rancorous and very public debate over the editing privileges practiced by Manson and his assistant, Julie MacDonald, it’s unlikely that someone more cooperative with corporate interests will occupy the job in the future. “The fear is that MacDonald will replace him,” says Suckling, “but given her controversial reputation, I doubt that will happen.”And then there’s the Pombo bill itself, which has had an unintended backlash effect: Not since the Tennessee Valley Authority built a dam over snail darter habitat in 1979 has so much attention been paid to endangered species law. “One hundred and twenty editorials ran in newspapers nationwide criticizing Pombo and articulating support for the Endangered Species Act,” Suckling notes. “That’s the first time I can remember this issue rising to the level of a national crisis. That’s going to have an impact on the Senate,” where the environmentally conscious Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island presides over the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water.
What’s more, contrary to the naysayers who claim the endangered species law isn’t
working, fauna and flora have continued to recover under the act. “If you actually
go and look at the population trends,” says Suckling, “the great majority are
improving. Eighty percent of all species put on the list have significantly improved.
So even in this political climate,” he concludes, “there’s hope.”