Court strikes at Endangered Species Act

  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot require private landowners to protect the habitat of endangered species, according to a recent court decision. The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., stems from a lawsuit challenging federal regulations restricting timber harvesting near spotted owl nests in Oregon and Washington. In the majority opinion, Judge David B. Williams said Congress intended the Endangered Species Act to bar actions such as hunting that directly harm protected species, but not logging and other activities that modify a species' habitat. Some environmentalists and federal officials disagreed with the ruling, saying habitat destruction is the primary reason most species become endangered. In any case, Susan Saul, a staffer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the decision will not affect her agency's policy of protecting habitat on private lands. She says the agency will rely on a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision which upheld the right of the government to impose regulations on private landowners. "We're going to continue with our belief that taking the habitat is the same as taking the bird," she says. Todd True, an attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, says the decision would have little impact on species like the spotted owl, which reside primarily on public lands, but could make salmon and the California gnatcatcher, which inhabit private lands, vulnerable to future legal challenges.