Service leaves endangered species in limbo

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reshaped a powerful conservation tool


The San Miguel Island fox, a small predator that dwells only on one of Southern California's Channel Islands, lives as precarious an existence as any animal in the United States. Predation by golden eagles, a non-native, meat-eating species which supplanted the fish-eating bald eagles the fox was used to, has contributed to lowering its population. Disease, too, including suspected canine distemper carried by domestic dogs, has helped slice the population of the fox from 400 to 15, in just six years. Biologists have captured all but one of the remaining foxes in hope of rescuing the animal with a captive breeding program.

The Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the fox to the list of endangered species, a move that would give it tighter protection. But on Nov. 15, the USFWS told the Center that because of budget problems, it would be at least another year before it could process the group's petition.

Two days later, pleading poverty, the agency froze all new listing decisions that are not already backed by court orders. Officials said the freeze could stretch into fiscal year 2001-02 if Congress doesn't send the agency more money. In the meantime, a host of imperiled plants and animals sit in limbo, including the Chiricahua leopard frog of southern Arizona and the San Diego ambrosia, a wind-pollinated sunflower species that grows in just 13 locations.

"It's not a moratorium - it's reality," says Nancy Gloman, the agency's ecological services director, of the listing freeze. She says lawsuits from environmentalists have forced the service to protect a bevy of "critical habitat" safe zones for endangered species, and the money has run out for listing new ones. "The fact of the matter is there is more work to do than funding to do it."

But environmentalists fear that a host of species may slide into extinction before they receive needed attention.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service pulls out every trick in the book to shut down progress," says Kieran Suckling, science-policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that has repeatedly sued the agency to protect species and their habitat (HCN, 3/30/98: A bare-knuckled trio goes after the Forest Service).

Suckling and others say the listing freeze highlights deeper problems with the strategy of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service for eight years under President Clinton, and doesn't bode well for agency protection of endangered species under George W. Bush.

A shift toward compromise

Prodded by groups such as the Center, as well as agency biologists, the Fish and Wildlife Service accelerated its species listings in the early and mid-1990s. In 1990, Interior's inspector general's office reported that the service had failed to list 600 known and 3,000 probable endangered and threatened animals and plants. It noted that 34 species had gone extinct in the preceding decade without proper protection, and recommended spending $144 million for listings. In the next decade, the service listed 682 species, roughly double the 1980s count.

But Suckling says under Babbitt, Fish and Wildlife has dragged its heels. In every year of the Clinton administration, the service sought less money for species listings than the $10 million that predecessor George Bush's administration requested from Congress in fiscal year 1991-92. For fiscal year 2000-01, the agency asked for just $7.2 million. It received $6.3 million.

Listings have slowed significantly in the past four years, and now Fish and Wildlife claims it has no money whatsoever to list new species. Officials point to lawsuit-happy environmentalists as the culprits, but Suckling says that blaming environmentalists is ridiculous. Every year since 1996, he points out, officials have actually asked Congress to put a cap on the listing budget.

Critics say the cap shows the Service doesn't really want to list species. But the Service says the cap kept federal judges from ordering the agency to take money from other programs to spend on listing.

Instead, Babbitt steered Fish and Wildlife toward habitat conservation plans, allowing development to continue while saving some habitat, and "no surprises" and "safe harbor" rules which guarantee property owners that once they've agreed to protect land, they won't face additional strictures later if scientists discover more imperiled species on their property (HCN, 8/30/99: Who's stopping sprawl?).

Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor and authority on the endangered species law, says that backed by President Clinton's veto pen, Bruce Babbitt fought off efforts by congressional Republicans to seriously weaken the Endangered Species Act. But he also tossed more than one compromise toward private landowners and businesses.

Babbitt "twisted the dial in favor of development and those who opposed the (Endangered Species Act)," says Parenteau, but he did so under tremendous pressure from Republican lawmakers. "You push this real hard and you risk a political backlash from Congress."

What next for the ESA?

Under the incoming Bush administration, Endangered Species Act enforcers will likely continue to move away from controversy and toward compromise.

Bush's selection to replace Secretary Babbitt, Gale Norton, is an outspoken proponent of both states' rights and property rights (HCN, 1/15/01: Colorado tapped for Interior). In January, The Denver Post reported that as Colorado's attorney general in 1995, she urged the Supreme Court to scale back the ESA. In a legal brief, she argued that the Endangered Species Act protected rare animals, but if the Fish and Wildlife Service put restrictions on private or state-owned land, it should compensate the landowner for any loss in property values.

The still-Republican Congress is likely to continue to starve the ESA enforcement effort through the budget process, says Parenteau. And without the looming threat of a veto from President Clinton, Republicans could again try to weaken the 1973 law, which is up for reauthorization this year.

January offered a preview when Utah Rep. Jim Hansen, the new chairman of the House Resources Committee, told AP that the Endangered Species Act had been distorted beyond recognition. "The intent of Congress was to protect the big stuff," he said, such as bald eagles and grizzly bears, not owls and snails.

If Hansen and his cohorts in Congress want to tear the Endangered Species Act apart, says Parenteau, "Bush's people will stand there and watch."

Tony Davis reports for the Arizona Daily Star.

You can contact ...

  • Kieran Suckling with the Center for Biological Diversity, P.O. Box 710, Tucson, AZ 85702-710 (520/624-7893 ext. 304);
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 202/208-5634.
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