The anecdotal war on endangered species is running out of steam

  • Cartoon - The asteroid theory of extinction

    Gary Oliver
  Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth stepped up to the podium at the Wise Use Leadership Conference in Reno, Nev., this summer and charged the Endangered Species Act with a series of assaults:


Californians lost homes to the 1993 fire because they were not allowed to clear weeds where endangered kangaroo rats live.


Snails smaller than a pencil point caused bankers to withhold loans - bankrupting Idaho ranchers.


Children may soon be ripped to shreds when the grizzly bear is introduced in Idaho, a state, she claims, it has never lived in.


Chances are, the first-year Republican's audience of property-rights leaders had heard these stories before. The entire nation may know them since conservative Republicans have worked tirelessly to sell the American public on the idea that the Endangered Species Act declares war on private property.


"Debate over the ESA has been fueled by anecdotes more than anything else in Congress," says Pam Eaton of the Wilderness Society, "and Republicans have successfuly captured the debate." Proof of their success: A bill introduced by Reps. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and Don Young, R-Ark., to eviscerate endangered species protection may come soon to the House floor. It would shield private property owners and pay them if environmental regulations decreased their property value.


Even though the bill has no less than 120 co-sponsors, passage in its current form looks less likely every day. Environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working with the media, have chipped steadily away at the credibility of the horror stories. Polls continue to show strong public support for the law among both Democrats and Republicans, and in Congress, a rift has developed between moderate and conservative Republicans, forcing the party to aim for a more politically palatable bill.


Chenoweth's anecdotes did not appear out of thin air. Three years ago, several groups asked their members for personal stories of ESA abuse. The groups then took these stories - many of which agency officials acknowlege hold grains of truth - and churned out an entire folklore, according to Jim Jontz of Defenders of Wildlife. Organizations such as the Farm Bureau and the Timber Industry Labor Management Committee helped spread the word. By early 1994, the property rights movement was such a formidable force that the environmental community convinced its champions in Congress to delay attempts to reauthorize the Act.


But then followed the 1994 Republican landslide, which led Western Republicans to try to gut the law. The national press picked up the horror stories; both ABC's 20/20 and CBS's Eye to Eye ran exposés on rats rating more attention than people in the California fires.


Environmentalists reacted slowly. Some tried to counter with success stories of species recovery; most found their less sensationalized versions ignored by press and legislatures, says Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife in Missoula, Mont. He charges that most journalists "mindlessly reported the horror stories."


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for implementing the Act, and the villain in most of the anecdotes, also seemed stuck in low gear. And Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt appeared conciliatory, exempting landowners of five acres or less from the law (HCN, 10/2/95).


But behind the scenes some within the agency fought back. Fischer says he'd get letters from staffers labeled "under private cover" and "for your information only." The letters showed the Fish and Wildlife Service could be "very effective at squashing the lies, but they were very reluctant to make a case themselves."


Other environmentalists received a plain white handbook from the agency without any insignia or author. The 26-page report, Facts About the Endangered Species Act, debunks 34 assaults on the Act. It reports, for example, that the General Accounting Office found no evidence that clearing weeds in kangaroo rat habitat would have saved houses from fire in California. Most horror stories, it explains, are either outright lies or overblown accounts of projects that were delayed temporarily by the law. The study says the Endangered Species Act stopped only four projects nationwide on private property between 1988 and 1992.


Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie finally appealed to the press. "The public needs help in making the connection between endangered species, their own health and welfare and their kids' future," she told the Society of Environmental Journalists Conference in May 1995. "This is an issue which we in the service have not defined well for the public. I know you can help."


Beattie's pleas may have worked. "Media coverage has changed drastically in the past six months," says Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Megan Durham. "We now get many more phone calls from reporters wanting to know the truth." When the House Resource Committee held field hearings last spring, many journalists reported that the panels of presenters were stacked against the law and some of the testimony overblown (HCN, 5/15/95).


Recent coverage of the act not only questions the horror stories, but highlights the many benefits plants and animals provide to humans. In a recent editorial for the Cox News Service, Martha Ezzard tells the story of how a species of infection-fighting soil bacterium saved Senate Majority leader Bob Dole's life after he was struck by an exploding shell in World War II.


The corporate backing of anti-ESA legislation has also become more apparent. Reporters jumped on a leaked memo that exposed Washington Republican Sen. Slade Gorton's ESA reform bill, which is similar to the Young-Pombo bill, as the handiwork of corporate lobbyists (HCN, 5/1/95).


Some say the public's gullibility regarding scare stories was bound to come to an end. "It is extremely hard to mobilize grassroots opposition to an act when 99.9 percent of the American public have no negative experiences with it," says Michael Bean, attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.


Cracks in the campaign to gut the ESA are also growing wider. In September, two Eastern Republicans, Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and New Jersey Rep. Jim Saxton, introduced ESA bills which would continue to protect habitat on private land. These more moderate bills failed to make it through the House Resouces Committee, but they struck a chord among the House leadership. House Speaker Gingrich recently sent the various Republican bills to his newly formed environmental task force to hash out differences, and he announced there would be no vote until 1996.


Rep. Pombo insists support for an overhaul of the Endangered Species Act is still strong. "The Young-Pombo bill has 120 co-sponsors; no other bill has more than 10," says Pombo spokesman Matt Hartaman. "The numbers speak for themselves."


"Young and Pombo are pushing their bill fast now because they know their power will wane," responds Fischer.


Some environmentalists warn that the conservatives' campaign has skewed the debate so far to the right that new Republican concessions only seem moderate. "If Young-Pombo is an unmitigated disaster, then the Gilchrest bill can best be labeled a mitigated disaster," says Washington, D.C., attorney Eric Glitzenstein, who has brought dozens of lawsuits to protect endangered animals and plants.


Glitzenstein says many provisions of the bill - anonymous peer reviews of listings, non-federal teams to develop recovery plans and the requirement to minimize "adverse" social and economic consequences-could render protection impossible in the hands of a Secretary Watt "or even a Secretary Babbitt."


The appearance of moderation among some Republicans may be as calculated as the campaign of anecdotes, Glitzenstein warns. But Jontz celebrates the delay: "It's an indication that we've had an impact; we developed a division within the Republicans."


* Heather Abel, HCN intern





This story was paid for by the High Country News Research Fund.


For more information, contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division Endangered Species Department at 703/358-2171, or Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chair of the Republicans' environmental task force at 202/225-3665.