Boulder, Colo. - Jasper Carlton, head of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, sits at a table in his suburban townhome, intently sketching a map of the Selkirk ecosystem in northern Idaho.
"I spent time in those mountains
for weeks on end in midwinter," he says of the days in the
mid-1980s when he was working for the Idaho Department of Fish and
Game. "I knew where the grizzly bear were and I knew where the lynx
were. But it was three years before I saw my first caribou in the
The bearded, youthful-looking
55-year-old gets up, walks over to the wall and gazes reverently at
a young caribou peering curiously from his frame into the room, "I
took this photograph on that day," he says.
"Then all hell broke loose. The Forest Service
continued to recommend clearcut logging right up into the border
"We started carrying dead caribou out of
the woods. When I carried my third dead caribou out of the woods,
the rage set in. I said: "It's over, we're going to federal
"You can't do that," he whines,
pretending to be a federal bureaucrat.
"Oh yes I
can," says Carlton.
"I threatened a lawsuit
against (Interior Secretary) James Watt and I won emergency listing
of the Selkirk Woodland Caribou (under the Endangered Species Act).
We drew up the complaint and on the day we were walking in to file
the lawsuit the justice department attorneys met us."
"What do you want?" he asks in a hushed voice,
recalling the question of a justice department
"I want emergency listing and immediate
cessation of this timber sale by the Forest Service."
"Mr. Watt will give that to you."
He smiles at the memory of those
For more than two decades, Jasper
Carlton has fought for the protection of disappearing snails,
frogs, snakes, birds, wild cats and bears, to name just a few. He
has successfully sued every secretary of the Interior from James
Watt to Bruce Babbitt and, by his own estimate, been involved in
the listing of approximately 340 of the 944 species covered by the
Endangered Species Act.
Currently he has all
seven regional divisions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
under court order. Each year they are required to report to him on
their progress in listing species.
"They call it
gonzo law, they call it guerrilla lawyering, they call it all kinds
of things," he says. "We've been extremely successful in it. We've
won almost every lawsuit we've brought."
Carlton's victories have brought tangible
benefits to many species. Without his actions, the Selkirk woodland
caribou might be gone, and species like the Western boreal toad and
spotted frog might now be winking out without anyone batting an
But some question whether the hundreds of
petitions and lawsuits he has fired at the federal government over
the past 20 years have fueled a backlash and set the stage for a
major rollback of the Endangered Species
Carlton dares anyone to show him where a
lawsuit he has brought has caused any significant economic harm.
"The lumber mills are still running in the Selkirks," he
Back in the mid-1980s, Carlton realized
that the major wildlife organizations were focusing most of their
attention on charismatic species such as the wolf and the grizzly
bear. Neglected were the vast majority of plants and animals that
form the broad base of ecosystems.
So, in 1991,
Carlton started the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, whose mission is
to save all the components of ecosystems. Funded by private
donations and some foundations, Carlton has used the Endangered
Species Act like a hammer, filing dozens of petitions to list
disappearing species of plants and animals around the country, and
dozens of lawsuits to make sure the petitions aren't
Carlton says biological reality has
forced him to embrace a strategy based on litigation. "The
scientific databases tell us that there are approximately 9,000
species of plants and animals in this country that are biologically
threatened, yet we've only listed 900 and are only considering
listing a few thousand. That's a huge gap."
the moment Carlton is fighting 20 different lawsuits to protect
such things as the spalding's catchfly, painted rock snail,
amargosa toad, lynx, wolverine, fisher and grizzly
"We've taken the approach ... of protecting
ecosystems by protecting the sum of their parts," he explains.
"Instead of one lawsuit we bring 10, 15, 20 lawsuits."
"We want him (the judge) to understand that
invertebrates are the building blocks of biological systems and
that they are the beginning of the food chain," Carlton says. "What
happens to invertebrates happens to the birds. What happens to the
prairie dogs happens to the ferruginous hawk and the swift fox and
the burrowing owl. He will see how these bureaucratic foot-dragging
agencies are just saying to hell with the law and bending to
economic pressure. And they're doing it everywhere."
Carlton's application of ecosystem law reached a
zenith in 1992, when he and the Fund for Animals filed a lawsuit on
behalf of 443 species that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed
to list, despite ample scientific evidence that they are headed
toward extinction. It was the biggest lawsuit in the history of the
Endangered Species Act. Under the terms of an out-of-court
settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Service has until Sept. 15, 1996,
to decide what species should be proposed for
To date, approximately 250 of the cases
have been settled, with the agency proposing to list most of the
species. But Carlton says, "They're avoiding listing species that
are wide-ranging and have implications for landscape-scale
protection: lynx, wolverine, fisher, bull trout."
The fate of the remaining candidate species was
thrown into limbo this year when President Clinton signed a
spending bill that includes a six-month moratorium on the listing
of new species and a $1.5 million cutback in funding for listings.
Carlton believes the Fish and Wildlife Service
is still bound to complete proposals for listing some species even
during the moratorium. If Secretary of Interior Babbitt disagrees,
Carlton says, he will see him in court.
also plans two other legal attacks: one against a proposed new
regulation that would make it much more complicated for private
citizens such as Carlton to petition for listing a species under
the Endangered Species Act; the other against a regulation barring
the listing of a species living on an international border, such as
the Selkirk woodland caribou, if that species is not threatened in
the neighboring country.
Like the specialized
organisms he often defends, Carlton has a unique niche in the
conservation movement. Though he has studied both science and the
law, he never completed degrees in either field. Instead he has
achieved remarkable success as an intermediary, bringing
specialists from both fields together.
cut his activist teeth with the Sierra Club in the 1960s when David
Brower was the executive director. Later he formed the first
Friends of the Earth chapter in Tennessee.
science is his trademark. Even opponents say his petitions for
listing species are biologically sound.
filing, "We break our backs to come up with a scientific consensus
on a species," says Carlton. Often species are dropped from
consideration because the data are inconclusive. And when his
organization does take an agency to court, Carlton says, scientific
integrity is paramount.
How does a man who calls
himself "an amateur naturalist" pull together the best science in
the business? "Let's just say I have a lot of whispering pines,"
says Carlton. "There are some very conscientious biologists out
there working for the agencies. Almost every week I get little
brown envelopes in the mail from somewhere in the country."
Carlton's approach of using good science and the
Endangered Species Act to force land agencies to manage for entire
ecosystems has spread.
Kieran Suckling of the
Southwest Biological Diversity Project in Silver City, N.M., says
five years ago he and a small group of activists invited Carlton
down to a meeting to pick his brain.
day, Suckling's group has gathered an immense amount of scientific
information about the Southwest's plant and animal species and
petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list dozens of
them, from well-known species such as the northern Goshawk to
obscure varieties of desert fish. Where the agency has delayed a
listing or denied it on political grounds, the group, like Carlton,
has taken to the courts.
"Jasper got us set up
and going," says Suckling. "He showed us the ropes."
Carlton's success has not come without
a price. During his years as an activist he has received threats,
had bricks thrown through his window, and been shot at twice. Three
years ago his second marriage dissolved, and Carlton believes that
it was due, in part, to the intensity of his activism.
"There's a tremendous personal price to pay in
some of this," he says. "That's the biggest price I've paid. That's
the biggest regret I have."
Carlton is aware
that his aggressive legal tactics anger some people who charge that
his activism has helped create a backlash.
"Jasper," he says, imitating the prim, cocktail
voice of what he calls silver-spoon environmentalists, "you have to
be politically correct."
"I say, what about
being biologically correct? Look at every case we bring. The damned
species is on the threshold of extinction. It's going to disappear
from the wild and you're telling me to back off and you're supposed
to be an environmentalist?"
Despite his tough
rhetoric, Carlton admits that he has used the Endangered Species
Act liberally without always building adequate public support.
"I've been as delinquent in the past as other people in not tapping
peoples' hearts. I've never met a frog I didn't like, but how do
you get people to love a frog? I'm trying to change."
Carlton says his efforts to raise consciousness
about lesser known species have been hindered by the major
environmental groups. They have spent far too many resources
protecting high-profile species like the grizzly and the wolf, he
says, largely because those species are easy to use for fund
raising. Dozens of other species, particularly native fish and
amphibians, are only marginally helped by the protection of grizzly
habitat, he says. "It was a mistake to try and save the whole
Northern Rockies ecosystem on the back of the grizzly bear."
Likewise, he says, environmentalists erred when
they tried to use the northern spotted owl to protect the Pacific
Northwest's ancient forests. "We knew there were more than 100
species dependent on those forests," he says. "What if
envrionmentalists had started 10 years earlier building the
scientific case for the ecosystem, and had educated the public, the
agencies and the politicians? It wouldn't have come down to a
three-pound fuzzy owl versus the American way of life."
While Carlton damns corporations and
politicians, he says he has no quarrel with rural people trying to
make a living off the land. "I criticize the people that are
exploiting them, that are feeding them lies, that are causing
Carlton says he has a lot of respect for
ranchers. "I don't think the majority of them want to destroy
mother nature. I don't think they want Disneyland in the Rockies. I
don't think they want condos. I don't think they want to see
hundreds of thousands of tourists either. They want to make a
living. They want to be able to pass on some of this. And I think
we ought to be able to find ways of doing that."
One Idaho rancher in the Selkirk Mountains
sticks in Carlton's mind. "He used to say, "Right is right, wrong
is wrong, and it's wrong to be destroying this wonderful wild
country." He never overgrazed anything. He rotated his range. He
was proud that trout ran through the middle of his cow pasture. He
didn't know I was considered a radical environmentalist, and we got
Even if the Endangered
Species Act does take a hit this year, Carlton vows to fight on.
"We've loaded our guns with non-ESA actions," he says. "We will
make up with numbers what we lose in strength." His bullets include
the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Environmental Policy
Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, and the National Forest
To Carlton, the debate over the
Endangered Species Act represents a broader societal debate. "It's
whether we as a society are going to respect ecological compacts
that say there are limits to economic growth in the public
interest. We agree not to burn tires in our backyard that pollute
the air of our neighbors, we agree not to dump toxic substances
into the stream that fouls the water, we agree not to shoot bald
eagles out of the air, and we can agree not to drive species into
extinction by virtue of what we do on private lands."
With reason on both sides, Carlton hopes, a
consensus can be reached. Otherwise, he warns, "we'll have a
For more information on the
Biodiversity Legal Foundation write to P.O. Box 18327, Boulder, CO
Halverson is a former HCN intern who lives in Steamboat Springs,
Colorado. HCN associate editor Paul Larmer contributed to this