Endangered, but on road to recovery

Is the Endangered Species Act really helping the piping plover, Delmarva Fox squirrel and more than 1,300 plants and animals on the protected list survive - or is it as critics argue - a costly failure?

One of the nation's landmark environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the focus of congressional overhaul legislation. Reformers say the act wastes taxpayers' money, spawns costly lawsuits, and does little to help endangered species.

But a independent study released Tuesday suggests otherwise, showing populations of most listed species in the Northeast improved significantly under the ESA, the bald eagle most notably. Other species are stabilizing, the report said.

Concern about altering the ESA brought about the first-of-its-kind study by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz. It compiles federal, state, and university research to provide long-term population trend data for the large majority of endangered species in the Northeast.

At least 38 of 41 endangered species in the Northeast have increased in number or maintained stable populations since being listed, the report says. About 7 percent of species are in decline. No species has become extinct since being listed. The analysis included all species for which there were at least six years of data and a recovery timeline, comprising 73 percent of those listed.

"We find that the Endangered Species Act has been remarkably successful in the region," said the CBD report.

In particular, the bald eagle soared from 417 pairs in 1963 to 7,230 by 2003. Populations of the American peregrine falcon, the Atlantic piping plover, the humpback whale, the Puritan tiger beetle, and the American Hart's-tounge fern also increased.

"It often takes many years on the [ESA] list before some populations even begin to rebound," says Peter Galvin, CBD conservation director. "These species didn't become endangered overnight, and people shouldn't expect them to recover overnight."

That's unlikely to satisfy those in Congress who say the act is a boondoggle. Less than 1 percent of the endangered species put on the list since 1973 have recovered enough to be taken off, critics say.

Leading the way to change the ESA is Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California, chairman of the House Resources Committee. He sponsored ESA overhaul legislation that passed the House last fall. Similar ESA legislation could surface in the Senate as soon as this month, observers say.

Government data "makes it clear the vast majority of these species have not improved," said Mr. Pombo in a statement last year. Just 10 species have recovered enough to be removed from the list since the act was passed in 1973, with 60 percent of species "uncertain" or "declining," according to US Fish and Wildlife Service reports.

But that biennial report to Congress charts "declines" and other species' status on a two-year time frame, during which plant populations can fluctuate dramatically, Mr. Galvin says, citing a need for long-term information.

But Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Pombo's committee, says those "declines" are accurate. The CBD report, he says, uses US Fish and Wildlife Service data that are being revised, and so are "unreliable and not meaningful."

Mr. Kennedy agrees that collecting long-term species population data is a good idea - and that Pombo's overhaul does this. For its part, the CBD study shows the average recovery plan for Northeast species is 42 years, Galvin says.

For example, a little pond turtle called the northern red-bellied Cooter found in southern Massachusetts was down to 300 in 1985 and is now at 3,000. Though the cooter has been on the list for 20 years, the first hatchlings have been breeding for only five. A cooter begins to breed at age 14.

"Because of the systems we've worked out we know it won't disappear again," says Tom French of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. "Whether it will ever thrive again we don't know.... We're still working for that long-term goal." The cost to taxpayers to save the cooter is about $5,000 to $15,000 a year.

Also on the list is the slow-reproducing shortnose sturgeon on the Hudson River. It increased from 12,669 spawning fish in 1979 to 56,708 by 1996. Meanwhile, the Atlantic piping plover, a shore bird increased from 550 pairs in 1986 to 1,423 by 2004. Each has a long way to go, but they've made strides, Galvin says.

"The data in this report does show that many endangered species are making significant progress toward recovery," says Michael Bean, chair of the wildlife program for Environmental Defense, a Washington environmental group. "It refutes the claim that the act has failed because there are not more species delisted. This shows a lot are making progress. They're not there yet, but they're headed in the right direction."

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