Wildlife's 'Crown Jewel'

THE northern spotted owl and the red-cockaded woodpecker have flown to the United States Supreme Court to find out if they -- or any other endangered species -- will find protection there.

On Tuesday, the court heard arguments in a case that will decide just how much shelter the 1973 Endangered Species Act affords to America's wildlife. Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Greater Oregon will hinge on just what Congress meant when it limited the ability of landowners to ''take'' an endangered species.

In March 1994 the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that only direct application of force against wildlife, such as hunting, and not the effects of harm to habitat, such as the cutting of trees, was intended by the law.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia took up this point of view during the high court questioning Tuesday. To consider the cutting of trees as ''taking'' owls, he said, was ''just weird.'' But Associate Justice Stephen Breyer considered the intent of Congress and seemed ready to conclude that the law was meant as a broad protection to threatened animals.

The court's decision is expected by late June. Congress itself is already set to reconsider the Endangered Species Act. But the court's decision remains important -- not the least as a symbol of where it may stand on other environmental issues.

A decision to overturn -- and accept the broader definition of taking -- would be reasonable and in line with what Congress intended when it acted to protect wildlife. Most people would agree that depriving humans of food or shelter constitutes a threat to life. It seems clear that any serious effort to protect nonhuman species must protect their habitats as well.

In addition, the law already includes the right of private-property owners to receive ''incidental take permits'' that allow reasonable exceptions to the law.

The Endangered Species Act glitters as a crown jewel among the protections Americans have established for their environment. In the face of the current haste to ensure that private-property rights are unencumbered, the court and Congress should hesitate in undermining reasonable protections. Much is at stake.

The extinction of a form of life, after all, really is forever.

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