Reality Check

Misinformation, spin abound in endangered species debate

  • Delhi Sands flower-loving fly

  • San Francisco garter snake

    Alan Francis
  • Valley elderberry longhorn beetle

    Theresa Sinicrope Talley

Richard Pombo, the California Republican currently leading the effort to strip the Endangered Species Act of its requirement to protect "critical habitat," spins a good yarn. But checking Pombo’s facts often reveals a different story.

In 1994, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Pombo claimed that his family’s land near Tracy, Calif., was stripped of its value when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared it critical habitat for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. Trouble was that the agency never designated critical habitat for the fox — on Pombo land or anywhere else (HCN, 7/25/05: Will the real Mr. Pombo please stand up?).

Asked for examples of how critical habitat has harmed business, Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Pombo’s House Resources Committee, recently replied: "The poster case when it comes to critical habitat would be the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, and the near-destruction of the timber job base in that area." That, too, turns out to be untrue.

Curious, High Country News commissioned two veteran environmental reporters, Tony Davis and Kathie Durbin, to check out the claims coming from Pombo’s committee and the offices of his industry supporters. They found that while endangered species have indeed impacted timber companies and developers, there seems to be a great deal of confusion over what part of the Endangered Species Act is actually responsible.

In at least one case, industry representatives blamed the act for restrictions that were the result of an entirely different law. Steven Webster, executive director of the Florida Marine Contractors Association, testified to Pombo’s committee in 2004 that critical habitat for the Florida manatee had prevented fishermen from building new boat docks. But in an e-mail to Davis, Webster admitted that the real culprit was the 1899 Rivers and Harbor Act. He added, "However, I feel very comfortable stating that if the 1899 Act did not exist, the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service would have used ‘critical habitat’ as its regulatory justification to meddle."

Aren’t environmentalists just as guilty of hyperbole and spin? Davis checked their stories, too, and found them to be largely accurate. Critical habitat for the palila, a yellow-headed Hawaiian bird, led to an agreement that removed cattle and sheep from 10,000 acres of forests and contributed $14 million to palila conservation. In the West, critical habitat has kept off-road vehicle riders and other recreationists from destroying the desert yellowhead, an herb that lives in one small patch in Fremont County, Wyo., and the Inyo California towhee, a songbird whose numbers have dropped below 200. In Humboldt County, Nev., the rule protected the Osgood Mountains milkvetch from mining activity; the plant was later removed from the endangered species list.

Here’s a wrap-up of discrepancies we found around the region.

—Greg Hanscom, editor


Brian Kennedy, spokesman for Pombo’s committee, and U.S. Rep. Joe Baca, R-Calif., have both said that critical habitat for the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly has caused huge economic impacts to the Southern California cities of Colton and Fontana. There’s no question that the fly’s endangered listing has had impacts — Fontana has been forced to set aside $15 million worth of land that was intended for development, and ESA reviews have slowed work on a freeway overpass in Fontana and a storm drain in Colton, says Baca aide Dave Ferreira. But the fly has no designated critical habitat.


Kennedy also said that critical habitat rules for "an endangered snake of some kind have been impacting the BART project in California." In 2000, construction work on a $1.6 billion, 8.7-mile extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system to San Francisco International Airport was halted for nine days after work crews discovered a lifeless foot-long San Francisco garter snake flattened by a truck at the entrance to a work-site access road. The delays cost the project $1 million. But the garter snake, although listed as endangered, has no designated critical habitat.


"Lives were lost," according to Kennedy, because critical habitat for the threatened valley elderberry longhorn beetle prevented the repair of levees outside Sacramento, Calif. Three people died when a levee was breached along the Feather River near Marysville in January 1997, but that area was not critical habitat for the beetle. Pombo and local officials have long argued that the beetles blocked the clearing of sand bars from the river. Federal officials say the levees were so old and the flooding so severe that the damage and deaths would have occurred anyway.


Last September, during the debate on Pombo’s proposed ESA reform bill, Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., told the House of Representatives that critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane had led to eight years of still-unfinished discussions over management of the Central Platte River. But Jim Cook, legal counsel for the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, downplays the effects of critical habitat on the negotiations, which aim to protect the endangered crane and two other endangered birds: the least tern, which has no critical habitat, and the piping plover, whose critical habitat is in limbo in Nebraska because of a court ruling.

The author is the Arizona Daily Star’s environment reporter.

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