Further endangering species

July 20, 2004

STARS ARE ALIGNING tomorrow to produce two seemingly contradictory events in the course of the 30-year-old Endangered Species Act, one of the nation's best-known conservation laws.

The eastern gray wolf will be formally proposed for removal from the list of nearly 1,300 plants, animals and birds threatened with extinction, a step touted by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton as a success story prompted by the wolf's strong resurgence in three Midwest states.

Meanwhile, the House Resources Committee is expected to approve legislation that would roll back federal protections that helped save the wolf, the bald eagle and a dozen other once-imperiled species.

Both developments, though, fit in a larger pattern of efforts to accommodate the farmers, ranchers, developers, miners, loggers and other private and commercial interests who have long considered the Endangered Species Act an especially odious federal dictate.

In fact, leaving the gray wolf to its own devices, even in the Northeast states where it has not yet reappeared, potentially represents a greater unraveling of protections than the committee action, which may be as far as the legislation gets this year.

Congress has been wrestling for at least a decade with attempts to void the Endangered Species Act. But not even the Republican-led House, which typically moves in lockstep in such policy fights, has been willing to tamper with a law that remains broadly popular with voters.

President Bush doesn't feel such constraints, and has moved to weaken enforcement of the law through regulatory means, much as he has with other environmental protections. Those changes include sharply decreasing the number of new species added to the list each year and curtailing new acreage of "critical habitat" designated off limits for their protection.

House Resource Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo, a California rancher and leading critic of the Endangered Species Act, argues it has been a failure because only a handful of species listed have recovered their populations, despite costly economic disruptions to property owners.

But most have been saved from extinction, and natural habitat has been spared for the benefit of all the wild things living there.

A Bush policy favoring incentives to landowners to protect habitat over bitterly received federal prohibitions might work fine if money is available. As a last resort, though, strict protections must remain on the books not only for the sake of wolves and eagles and less-glamorous critters but also for the vast ecological universe of which they are an integral part.

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