Endangered Species Act Faces GOP Cost-Hunters

`A SALMON is a salmon is a salmon,'' Gertrude Stein almost said. But is it?

Under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA), overdue for reauthorization, subspecies, distinct populations, and (in the case of migrating fish like salmon) even individual ``runs'' may be designated as ``threatened'' or ``endangered'' and therefore deserving of the kind of protection that can disrupt economies and communities.

A decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service this week involving steelhead (a kind of migrating trout) points up this complicated and controversial aspect of a federal law that has prompted many major environmental battles in this country.

The federal agency ruled that the summer run of steelhead in Deer Creek, a tributary of the Stillaguamish River in Washington State, is not an ``evolutionary significant unit'' and therefore not eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In response to a petition brought by the environmental group Washington Trout, however, fisheries service regional director Will Stelle emphasized that the Deer Creek summer steelhead run still could be listed once a comprehensive study of the fish is completed early next year.

Even before the recent elections, the species-protection act had a lot of critics from both political parties. And now with the GOP running things on Capitol Hill and Republican governors set to be in the majority, they are looking to rein in what Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has described as ``probably the most revolutionary environmental law of this entire century.''

Enacted in 1973, the ESA defines ``species'' to include ``any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.''

The most notorious species listed under the act, the northern spotted owl, is actually a subspecies. Two other subspecies - the California spotted owl and the Mexican spotted owl (found in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah) - are not listed.

Environmentalists say such distinct populations as the spring and summer chinook salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers (also listed under the Endangered Species Act) are important ``indicator species'' for the health of ecosystems.

Critics of ESA say it's a nit-picking way for activists to hold up development or damage such resource-based industries as logging or mining.

Speaking of ranchers, farmers, builders, and others impacted by the law, Robert Gordon of the National Wilderness Institute says ESA ``constantly intrudes on their lives, challenges their fundamental rights, and even threatens their livelihoods.''

Describing itself as ``the voice of reason on the environment,'' this organization recently issued a lengthy analysis of the Endangered Species Act, part of which focuses on ``taxonomy,'' or the classification of species.

``Rather than rely on reproduction as the objective basis to define species, our endangered species program increasingly focuses on taxonomic units based on more subjective criteria like coloration or on political grounds like state borders,'' the report states. ``This presents an opportunity to those who would abuse the law for political purposes.''

This view is likely to be heard more and more on Capitol Hill. Incoming House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas is on the advisory board of the National Wilderness Institute. So is Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, one of the Senate's most conservative members and an advocate of changing the Endangered Species Act.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who recently switched from Democrat to Republican, has been a lead sponsor of bills to restrict the ESA and also to assert private property rights in matters relating to species protection and clean water.

``I am hopeful that neither ESA nor the Clean Water Act will be reauthorized without substantial protections for the rights of private property owners...,'' Senator Shelby wrote recently in a trade publication for the mining industry.

Advocates point to the bald eagle, California condor, black-footed ferret, and peregrine falcon as examples of species brought back from near-extinction by ESA`S protective legislation.

Others are more critical of the Endangered Species Act's record. The US Fish and Wildlife Service reported earlier this year that 38 percent of listed species now are ``stable'' or ``improving.'' The other 62 percent are rated ``declining,'' ``extinct,'' or status ``unknown.''

Of the 1,452 plant and animal species listed as ``threatened'' or ``endangered,'' only one-third have recovery plans as required by law.

Meanwhile, some 4,000 ``candidate species'' await official decisions on whether they too will join the list.

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