AUSTIN, TEXAS — IT'S the political season in Texas and politicians are spending as much time bashing a bird as they are one another.
Political candidates across the state, sensing an easy victim, are becoming vocal opponents of a federal plan to protect the golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered migratory songbird that nests in the hills of central Texas.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wants to protect the bird, which was put on the Endangered Species List in 1990, by designating parts of central Texas as ``critical habitat.''
The proposal has made feathers fly and may play a role in Congress's reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) next year. The property-rights movement, a national coalition of landowners who oppose endangered-species regulations, is now gaining momentum in Texas.
Last month, 3,000 angry ranchers and farmers marched on the state Capitol to protest federal land-use restrictions. The landowners have formed a group called Take Back Texas to push for private-property-rights laws.
Marshall Kuykendall, a leader of the group, said he is not going to allow ``a federal government agency with a $1.2 billion budget and a pistol and a badge to tell us what to do.''
Mr. Kuykendall's position has been bolstered by statements from Gov. Ann Richards (D) and Attorney General Dan Morales, both of whom are running for reelection. In a recent letter to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Ms. Richards said actions by FWS regarding the ESA have ``literally robbed people of their financial security.'' Mr. Morales has threatened to sue the federal agency if it goes forward with the habitat-protection proposal.
Richards' opponent, George W. Bush, son of the former president, has called the habitat designation an example of the government ``taking extreme actions, twisting environmental laws beyond their intended purpose, and eroding property rights.''
US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock (D) and Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry (R) have also criticized the habitat proposal. All are running for reelection.
Despite landowners' claims that the designation will take their property, John Rogers, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, says the proposal will not affect normal ranching and farming and will only affect a small portion of the warblers' habitat in Texas. The birds have about 814,000 acres of habitat in the state. ``If people want to use that for political gain, I suppose that's their business,'' Mr. Rogers says.
WHILE Rogers downplays the political ramifications of the uproar, the situation in Texas is part of an increasingly vocal anti-endangered-species movement occurring across the country.
Farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley, where the FWS is trying to protect habitat for a host of endangered species, are protesting the agency's plans to survey their property for rare species. In Washington and Oregon, timber interests continue to fight plans to protect the endangered northern spotted owl.
Dede Armentrout, a regional vice president for the National Audubon Society, worries that the critical-habitat designation for the warbler will hurt endangered species in the long run. ``It's become politically expedient to bash the feds,'' she said. ``We don't get anything from the critical-habitat designation, and the political loss is dramatic. People are so ticked off, they are out clearing habitat.''
Indeed, some Texas landowners are clearing the juniper trees that warblers prefer rather than worry about potential endangered-species liability. At least one Austin-area landowner has been investigated for illegal clearing of warbler habitat, but FWS officials admit that gaining a conviction in such a case is difficult.
The surge in support for property rights may force significant changes in the ESA, which will be voted on by Congress next year. In July, the House passed the California Desert Protection Act by a margin of almost 2 to 1. Now in conference committee, the bill contains a property-rights amendment.
If the GOP gains a significant number of seats in the House during the November elections, the ESA may be reauthorized with a major property-rights provision.
Some observers say the time is ripe for the FWS to reassess its approach. ``If they paid people to protect habitat, they would get lots of cooperation,'' explains Alex Thal, director of the Southwest Center for Resource Analysis at Western New Mexico University in Silver City. ``Things will continue to get worse for endangered species until the Fish and Wildlife Service shows they can work ... with local people and local governments.''