Passing Storm

Environmentalists look forward to a Democratic Congress, but questions remain about the effectiveness of attempts to protect endangered species.

November 12, 2006|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

To environmentalists, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse is a scarce creature whose habitat in the grasslands of Colorado and Wyoming is being devoured by development.

But in the eyes of Western farmers and developers, it is no more real than the jackalope - a gag-gift cross between an antelope and a jackrabbit.

And to California Representative Richard W. Pombo, the mouse is just the most recent example of what's wrong with the Endangered Species Act, a "sacred cow" in desperate need of revision.

The reclusive three-inch mouse with the six-inch tail has become a symbol of man's efforts - both noble and ham-handed - to protect plants and critters.

Thirty-three years ago, Congress passed and President Richard M. Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, a law that has been credited with saving from extinction the bald eagle, the gray wolf and the peregrine falcon and putting Yellowstone grizzly bears and the Florida panther on the road to population recovery.

But it has not been hailed in all corners of the country. Opponents claim the law has trampled on property rights without compensation while doing little to save plants and animals. They say the original list of 109 species has ballooned to 1,256, with another 286 candidates waiting in the wings.

Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, notes that of the 40 species removed from the list since 1973, nine had become extinct and 16 never should have been listed in the first place.

"It's the sacred cow," Pombo told the Modesto Bee. "It is the big environmental law; that takes precedence over everything."

Last year Pombo set out to clip the wings of the sweeping environmental law - sharply limiting its powers with new legislation that passed the House with the blessing of that body's conservative leadership. That bill was blocked by opponents in the Senate.

This year Pombo found himself endangered - the target of outraged environmentalists who raised more than a million dollars that helped defeat him in last week's mid-term congressional elections.

Environmental protection advocates are ecstatic about Pombo's defeat. They expect the Endangered Species Act to be defended by friends in a Democratic-majority House.

But thoughtful critics of the act remain concerned about its sweeping mandate.

Indeed, the law requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list all threatened and endangered species and save them all. And humans may not "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect" anything on the list.

(Maryland has 31 threatened and endangered listings - 21 animals and 10 plants - everything from the American burying beetle, a 1989 inductee, to Canby's dropwart, a flowering plant listed in 1986.)

As Charles Mann and Mark Plummer noted in their 1994 book Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species: "In the role of modern Noahs, we face momentous choices. We want to load endangered species on our ark, but the task must compete for scarce resources with other worthy projects. Because we are acting from a human impulse rather than on orders of a Supreme Deity, we don't have blueprints for our conduct or, for that matter, the ark we are trying to build.

"We don't even know the number of potential passengers, although we know that whatever ark we choose to build will be unable to accommodate everything. What will be saved and what will be left behind? There is no automatic answer."

Regardless of how they feel about the challenges presented by the act, lawmakers will have to deal with the delicate issue of endangered species sometime soon. Authorization for the law expired more than a decade ago, but Congress has kept it afloat on a year-by-year basis rather than deal with the vexing conflicts it has raised.

In the case of Preble's mouse - named for the man who discovered it in 1899 - the question facing wildlife managers is whether it is a distinct subspecies with a dwindling population, as environmentalists contend, or whether it is part of another, more common family and undeserving of protection, as the landowners and developers claim.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials designated Zapus hudsonius preblei as threatened in 1998 and protected 31,000 acres of critical habitat. That infuriated farmers and ranchers, who pointed to a federal estimate that put the economic burden of complying at $79 million to $183 million over 10 years.

The agency reversed course last year and announced that based on genetic research, the mouse was not a separate subspecies and had no place on the list with threatened creatures such as the leatherback sea turtle and the piping plover. But a second study commissioned by the agency came to the opposite conclusion.

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