Endangered Species Act: A New Look

January 30, 1994|By MICHAEL K. BURNS

Snail darter, spotted owl, marbled murrelet, fairy shrimp, Furbish lousewort, cuckoo bee, red-cockaded woodpecker.

A rogues' gallery for the property rights posse in its effort to reform the Endangered Species Act? Or a pantheon of noble creatures saved by the intervention of this 20-year-old law that badly needs reinforcement?

These plants and animals on the endangered list have caused problems for human economic enterprise. Their official protected status means that activities on government lands or on private property requiring federal approval must not harm their survival. In most cases, it also means managing a "recovery plan" for the species.

All told, more than 800 American animals and plants (even insects and molds) are classified as endangered or threatened under the law. Another 3,000 are waiting for listing, delayed by lack of resources to study their cases.

The act is now up for reauthorization by Congress, renewing the debate about economy vs. environment in a set of dueling bills that propose to fundamentally weaken or strengthen the law. For neither side is the status quo satisfactory.

The Clinton administration, known for crafting compromise over such environmental conflicts, will likely repeat that tactic in this battle: add some assurances of property rights protection or compensation, while expanding habitat protections for species recovery. It's the kind of deal made in the spotted owl-timbering controversy in the Pacific Northwest last year.

For advocates of a stronger act, the existing program addresses emergency room crises rather than planning to prevent rare species from reaching the brink of extinction.

Greater protection for larger ecosystems that nurture multiple species, a vision shared by Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt, is their goal. More funding for the program, speedier official listing of proposed endangered species, and development of recovery plans are among their proposals to strengthen the act.

Critics who favor weakening the existing law claim that it has been used to trample on property rights, since even the suggestion that a threatened rodent or weed or insect might be on the land has been enough to halt human activity.

They want more scientific evidence that a species merits protection, and more public participation in recovery plans that TTC would restrict activity near endangered plants or animals.

Both human development and preservation of diverse species are valuable endeavors. The ESA does not set one above the other; it requires consideration of the economic impact of conservation decisions.

Indeed, of the 120,000 potential conflicts under ESA between 1979 and 1991, only 34 were canceled because of irreconcilable land uses. Yes, hundreds of other permits were approved only after landowners set aside recovery areas or paid mitigation funds. But that's the same kind of restriction and mitigation we require for the greater good on private wetlands and critical areas.

There have been small successes under the act. Seven species have rebounded to be removed from protected lists, while seven other listed species have become extinct. The bald eagle is soon to come off the endangered list. Other notable recoveries include the peregrine falcon, gray whale, the alligator, brown pelican, whooping crane and the Rydberg milk-vetch.

Critics argue that limited recoveries over two decades show that human restrictions are not effective against the larger forces of nature. And there is strong evidence that the ban on DDT and other pesticides has done more for endangered birds than specific ESA recovery plans.

Supporters of a stronger act say the problem has been delay in listing critical species and in developing recovery plans. About 80 percent of current recovery plans are inadequate to restore species and would merely maintain current populations, according to the National Wildlife Federation. And nearly half the listed species don't have a recovery plan implemented. Listings continue to be made only at the brink of extinction.

With this in mind, Interior Secretary Babbitt has pressed for a national biological survey to catalog systematically the nation's plants and animals and determine which could be in danger. By using survey results, Mr. Babbitt hopes to avoid "train wreck" scenarios in dealing with endangered species protection plans. He wants to protect entire ecosystems that support abundant fragile species rather than focusing on single species plans.

That could head off the last-minute death struggles with economic interests over land, such as the conflict over nesting grounds of the Northern spotted owl. The surveys may find that some species are actually less rare than they first appear. In the celebrated case of the endangered Tennessee snail darter that blocked plans for a dam, scientists then discovered other rivers with the tiny fish. The same thing happened when cuckoo bee nests held up construction of a university lab building in California.

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