Species protection hits budgetary wall

With moratorium on new 'endangered' listings, some call to revise protection act.

The Buena Vista Lake shrew and the southern California yellow-legged frog are unknown species to most Americans.

But they have one thing in common: Though scientists say both have a high possibility of going extinct, each currently exists in a state of bureaucratic limbo with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with looking after the welfare of imperiled species.

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, outgoing Fish and Wildlife Director Jamie Clark, citing a budget crisis, said the agency would not consider adding more animals or plants to the federal endangered species list until at least the end of this year.

On one level, the budget crisis reflects the challenges of managing new-species listing on a budget of scarcely $6 million. But the moratorium was also a coded message to environmentalists: Back off. A proliferation of costly lawsuits isn't helping the cause of conservation.

The decision infuriated environmentalists - who defend lawsuits as a crucial factor behind much species protection - and now ranks as perhaps the only Clinton-era environmental order that the Bush administration is unlikely to challenge.

The decision also points, some say, to the need to revise the Endangered Species Act, which has fueled bitter battles between environmental and property-rights forces.

Indeed, both sides share one point of rare common ground. If the act, and species sheltered by it, are to survive, the law must provide some compensation for property owners who must safeguard imperiled creatures on their land.

That doesn't mean such revision will come easily. In coming months, Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah, who chairs the House Resources Committee, plans hearings on ways to "improve" the act, but skeptics worry this means industry-sponsored gutting.

"Everybody agrees the stick approach to saving species isn't affective. We're interested in reducing the level of fear associated with the act and giving land owners and industries more of a carrot to be more tolerant," says Marnie Funk, spokeswoman for the Resource Committee.

Caught in the ideological crossfire is the Fish and Wildlife Service. It faces court orders, stemming from environmental lawsuits, to declare "critical habitat" areas for 350 species already listed as endangered or threatened. The cost of those lawsuits has paralyzed the agency's ability to move other imperiled species onto the list, says agency spokesman Hugh Vickery.

Born of this budgetary frustration, the Service's decision to freeze new listings means that 245 "candidate" species are not getting the attention needed to slow their declines.

"When we look at what we can do to pull plants and animals back from the brink of extinction, we believe that getting them protected under the act is the highest priority," former Director Clark said. "The lawsuits are forcing us to use our resources to do something that will provide much less benefit [to species]."

While environmental advocates aren't ignorant of this point, they say that just listing species is not enough. The designation of critical habitat is required by the law as a means of making sure land-use steps are taken to shelter at-risk species, they argue.

Nor should new listings be ignored, they add. In the case of the southern California population of the mountain yellow-legged frog, which has as few as 100 adults known to survive, any delays in adding the amphibian to the endangered list could doom it to the same fate as the dusky seaside sparrow, which went extinct in 1987, says Jasper Carlton, executive director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation. The group has sued the agency on behalf of dozens of species.

But new listings involve an arduous process that costs on average $70,763.

Costs mount where environmentalists have forced critical-habitat designation: $15,000 for an economic analysis, $5,000 for hearings, $5,000 for mapping, and roughly $50,000 for staff and facilities. Vickery says when you multiply that by 350, it adds up to a formidable figure.

But the need is also formidable, Carlton says, citing a "conservative estimate" of 6,000 US species that warrant protection, 4,500 more than are presently on the list.

It includes scores of butterflies, beetles, ants, snails, as well as more-recognized animals such as fishers, trumpeter swans, prairie dogs, wolverines, and several fish. Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and the Center for Biological Diversity have sued for habitat designation for tens of millions of acres of public and private land.

But Representative Hansen claims that when Congress created the Endangered Species Act and President Nixon signed it in 1973, it was meant to save only big, popular species, not every bug, bird, or turtle whose existence became threatened.

Under the guidance of Bruce Babbitt, Fish and Wildlife tried to be sensitive to the needs of private landowners with aggressive implementation of "Habitat Conservation Plans" which allow landowners to undertake activities that might harm a species or its habitat. Meanwhile, the landowner agrees to pursue certain conservation activities.

Carlton says the government's use of 300 such plans has resulted in a significant net loss of habitat on private lands.

Counters Vickery: "The flood of litigation is not benefitting threatened and endangered species. It takes away our biologists' discretion to use our limited resources in the most effective way."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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