How Far Should Laws Go to Save a Species?

Colorado case highlights controversy over the federal Endangered Species Act and its ability to protect wildlife.

Individually, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse - for whom a good day means finding a handful of tasty seeds and avoiding the talons of a hawk - has no idea what a fuss it's causing.

But in Castle Rock, Colo., on April 15, conservationists, developers, and wildlife officials will gather to talk about how this thumb-sized beastie might be saved from extinction without damaging the local economy. So serious is the issue that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has promised to get "personally involved," if that's what it takes to find a solution.

The future of the mouse - a biologically distinct species whose numbers have dwindled as its wetland habitat is lost - is as good a symbol as any for the nation's most profound and controversial environmental law.

Passed 25 years ago, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is six years overdue for reauthorization. After years of wrangling and year-to-year budgeting, the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans have pretty much settled on a new version of the law that attempts to satisfy both conservationists and property owners.

But like the mouse itself, which lives only in riparian areas along the front range of the Rockies between Cheyenne, Wyo., and Colorado Springs, Colo., the species-protection law remains highly precarious.

Continuing problems

Yet natural scientists say many plant and animal species around the country are continuing to decline. The World Conservation Union recently reported that nearly 34,000 plant species - more than 12 percent of the world's total - face extinction due to habitat loss and the invasion of exotic species.

According to this 20-year research effort backed by the Smithsonian Institution and 15 other organizations, the figure is even worse in the United States. About 29 percent of such species (some 16,000) are at risk. And this, the report's authors warn, is "just the tip of the iceberg" because scientists have yet to thoroughly study many areas of the world.

It was just such declines that the ESA was meant to prevent by identifying troubled plants and animals, regulating human activities that can lead to extinction, and crafting "recovery plans."

But environmental activists say the new version of the ESA would be much weaker than the existing law. Arlie Schardt, executive director of Environmental Media Services, calls it "a seriously regressive measure which will undermine protections for endangered plants and wildlife."

Meanwhile, opponents of the current ESA say the reform proposal would fail to protect private property rights. "Private landowners," says Ike Sugg of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, "will continue to view endangered species as liabilities because they will still be punished for having them on - or even near - their land." The new version, he adds, amounts to "federal land-use planning."

What to do with the ESA

There are two competing ESA reauthorization measures. The Senate bill, authored by Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho, emphasizes working with landowners to preserve habitat through conservation agreements. It includes tax breaks and other economic incentives.

"I know that if I were an endangered species, I would much rather have a friendly and willing landlord ... than one who viewed me as a threat and a liability because of some bureaucrats and regulations handed down from Washington," says Senator Kempthorne.

This has been the philosophy behind Mr. Babbitt's attempt to avoid what he calls "train wrecks" by getting the various interested parties together to form habitat-conservation plans to head off court battles over a species being listing under the ESA.

The Clinton administration has also been touting its "no-surprises policy," under which landowners know that once they' agree to a plan, they won't be hit by a new regulation. This is important because more than 80 percent of all endangered species in the US are on private land.

The Kempthorne bill is cosponsored by 13 other senators, including key Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, the senior Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

But environmentalists prefer a proposal crafted by Rep. George Miller (D) of California and cosponsored by 102 House members (mostly Democrats).

While Mr. Miller's bill includes some economic incentives for landowners, its principal focus is on strengthening recovery efforts. It provides for the independent monitoring of habitat-conservation plans and allows for changes to those plans if new scientific evidence dictates - including, presumably, the possibility of "surprises" for landowners.

The Miller bill is unlikely to go anywhere as long as Republicans control Congress. And the main political question now is, will the Senate bill favored (at least in principle) by the Clinton administration fare any better than the Preble's meadow jumping mouse?

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