ESA - keep it strong
By Ted Williams
"When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more,
another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
- naturalist-explorer William Beebe
Ted Williams is Editor-at-Large of Audubon magazine and conservation editor
of Fly Rod & Reel.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was an awakening--humankind's first
serious expression of an ecological conscience and its first and, so far,
best major effort to preserve the planet's genetic wealth. The law has been
a beacon for the world, inspiring nations and global communities to enact
similar statutes, most notably the Convention on International Trade in
The ESA has been hugely successful because it has teeth; and because it has
teeth it has come under vicious and prolonged attack by the development
interests it inconveniences. Since 1978, when Congress hatched the "God
Squad"--a committee empowered to sacrifice species it deems
nonessential--the ESA has survived unscathed. But now a two-pronged attack
by Congress and the administration threatens to bring it down. Last
September, Rep. Richard Pombo R-CA)--a developer posing as a rancher posing
as an advocate of the public good--prevailed on the House to pass his
"Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act," basically a repeal.
The Bush administration's assault has been more artful and, ultimately
perhaps, more effective. For example, listing species is something it
doesn't do on its own volition. The administration of George H. W. Bush
listed an average of 58 species per year. The Clinton administration listed
an average of 65 per year--this despite a one-year listing moratorium
sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). The George W. Bush
administration has listed an average of 8 for a total of 40. Thirty-eight of
these listings were in response to court action, one in response to
threatened court action, and one in response to a citizens' petition.
Shortly after taking office the president reneged on his campaign promise to
reduce carbon emissions. He then reneged on the nation's commitment to the
Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to deal with global warming--a
threat to thousands of species. More recently, the administration has
forbidden NASA scientists to inform the public about strong links between
climate change and greenhouse gases.
In 2001 Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who as Colorado's attorney general
had tried to prove in court that the ESA was unconstitutional, ordered the
Fish and Wildlife Service to insert the following disclaimer into all
ESA-related press releases: "Designation of critical habitat provides little
additional protection to species." Two years later she suspended designation
of critical habitat.
The administration's notion that plants and animals don't need places to
live was painfully evident in 2002 when, to appease irrigators, the Bureau
of Reclamation dewatered the Klamath River in southern Oregon and northern
California, thereby killing 33,000 chinook and coho salmon (the latter
threatened), and further imperiling two species of endangered suckers. Those
who blamed the administration were accused by Steve Williams, then director
of the Fish and Wildlife Service, of a "premature rush to judgment." And he
went on to proclaim that it was "too soon to draw conclusions" about what
might have caused the biggest dieoff of adult salmon in history--roughly the
equivalent of a parachute manufacturer suggesting that skydivers scraped
from asphalt might have died on the way down from bird flu.
Even as Klamath salmon were expiring the administration was jeopardizing
four endangered fish and a world-class trout fishery on Colorado's Gunnison
River by giving away federal water rights.
That same fall Interior had declined to appeal a bizarre court ruling that
cancelled the water right of Deer Flat National Wildlife refuge in Idaho, a
refuge dedicated to waterfowl and important to listed species.
Where Pombo and his allies have attempted frontal assaults, the Bush
administration has favored flanking maneuvers. Consider Interior's
machinations with the threatened marbled murrelet which nests in old-growth
rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. When the timber industry sued
Interior in an effort to get the bird delisted the administration declined
to defend, and the Fish and Wildlife Service initiated closed-door
negotiations. It then bypassed its own scientists, whose data the timber
industry didn't like, and hired consultants to do a "status review." But the
consultants also came up with the "wrong" answer--that ESA protection was
entirely appropriate. With that, Interior rewrote the report, reversing the
Presiding over the rewrite was assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and
parks, Craig Manson, who boasts that his administration has "reduced
critical habitat in some areas by 90 percent" and submits that extinction
might be okay. "If we are saying that the loss of species in and of itself
is inherently bad, I don't think we know enough about how the world works to
say that," he told the Los Angeles Times. And in an interview with Grist
magazine, he questioned the "orthodoxy" that "every species has a place in
the ecosystem and therefore the loss of any species diminishes us in some
Federal agencies that permit or undertake development in the habitat of a
listed species must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service or the
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to determine if that species will
be jeopardized. If a "jeopardy opinion" is forthcoming, the service or NMFS
must suggest "reasonable and prudent alternatives" or advise that the
project would violate the ESA. To circumvent this inconvenience, the Bush
administration has proposed "self-consultation" by agencies like the Forest
Service which are controlled by interests they're supposed to regulate and
have scant capability of assessing risks to fish and wildlife.
Moreover, Fish and Wildlife Service Florida Panther biologist Andy Eller
reports that he's been told by his superiors that the administration has
forbidden jeopardy opinions for any species no matter what. Eller was
ordered to put a "positive" spin on his biological opinions about
development in endangered panther habitat. When he refused he was taken off
panthers, harassed, and suspended.
On November 30, 2004, NMFS issued a biological opinion that the eight
main-stem Columbia and Snake River dams, which are in the process of
eliminating 27 threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead stocks, don't
count as fish killers because they were built before ESA enactment and are
thus part of the natural environment, like waterfalls. It was an
astonishing, unlawful action which contravened ESA's plainly stated recovery
mission. But when the scientific and environmental communities expressed
outrage NMFS flack Brian Gorman declared that paperwork--not results--is all
that's required of his agency: "The Endangered Species Act does not mandate
recovery; it mandates a recovery plan."
Then, on June 16, 2005, NMFS announced a policy to count domestic salmonids
raised in hatcheries as wild fish when determining whether or not a stock
requires ESA protection, thereby tossing out all scientific data, including
its own. Who needs clean, free-flowing rivers when you can mass-produce fish
in concrete troughs?
On February 21, 2006 the Fish and Wildlife Service announced its decision
not to list the Yellowstone cutthroat trout as threatened, despite
overwhelming evidence from its own scientists that the fish is on the way
out. Yet only 10 months earlier it had seen fit to jeopardize one of the
last strongholds of Yellowstone cutthroats by repealing the Clinton-era
protection for roadless areas greater than 5,000 acres--the most popular
initiative in the history of federal rulemaking.
This has allowed exploratory roads to be hacked into the Sage Creek area in
Idaho's Caribou-Targhee National Forest for possible expansion of J.R.
Simplot Company's phosphate strip mine, a major Superfund site spewing
trout-killing selenium into tributaries of Crow Creek and the Blackfoot
River. Concurrently, the administration is proposing to replace the
waterborne selenium standard of 5 parts per billion with the far laxer
fish-tissue standard of 7.91 parts per million. According to Interior's
resident selenium expert, Dr. Joseph Skorupa of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, "the proposed tissue standard would mean 50- to 90-percent
mortality for cutthroat trout."
Brock Evans, former Sierra Club staffer and now director of the Endangered
Species Coalition, attributes the ESA's longevity to its "nobility and
high-mindedness." And he offers this thought: "Thirty-three years ago our
lawmakers got together and said: 'We're not going to let another living
thing go extinct in this nation or anywhere on this planet, if we can help
it.' That's pretty impressive."
Indeed it is. And what's also impressive is that, despite the perceived
inconveniences of the ESA, 86 percent of Americans want to preserve it and
keep it strong. As a nation we loathe the thought of extinction. The ESA
reflects America at its very best. It does not consider "value" or
"usefulness" or human concepts of "beauty" and "magnificence." With it we
affirm our civility, our unselfishness, our democracy.
Call your Senator-tell them to dump Rep. Pumbo's "Threatened and Endangered
Species Recovery Act of 2005 " (H.R. 3824), it should be titled "Death to
Endangered Species Act"
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