The Endangered Species Act of 1973
was an awakening--humankind's first serious expression of an ecological conscience and its first and, so far, best major effort
to preserve the planet's genetic wealth. The law has been a beacon for the world, inspiring nations and global communities
to enact similar statutes, most notably the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The ESA has been hugely successful
because it has teeth; and because it has teeth it has come under vicious and prolonged attack by the development interests
it inconveniences. Since 1978, when Congress hatched the "God Squad"--a committee empowered to sacrifice species it deems
nonessential--the ESA has survived unscathed. But now a two-pronged attack by Congress and the administration threatens to
bring it down. Last September, Rep. Richard Pombo R-CA)--a developer posing as a rancher posing as an advocate of the public
good--prevailed on the House to pass his "Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act," basically a repeal.
The Bush administration's assault
has been more artful and, ultimately perhaps, more effective. For example, listing species is something it doesn't do on its
own volition. The administration of George H. W. Bush listed an average of 58 species per year. The Clinton administration listed an average of 65 per year--this despite a one-year listing moratorium
sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). The George W. Bush administration has listed an average of 8 for a total
of 40. Thirty-eight of these listings were in response to court action, one in response to threatened
court action, and one in response to a citizens' petition.
Shortly after taking office the
president reneged on his campaign promise to reduce carbon emissions. He then reneged on the nation's commitment to the Kyoto
Protocol, an international treaty to deal with global warming--a threat to thousands of species. More recently, the administration
has forbidden NASA scientists to inform the public about strong links between climate change and greenhouse gases.
In 2001 Interior Secretary Gale
Norton, who as Colorado's attorney general had tried to prove in court that the ESA was unconstitutional, ordered
the Fish and Wildlife Service to insert the following disclaimer into all ESA-related press releases: "Designation of critical
habitat provides little additional protection to species." Two years later she suspended designation of critical habitat.
The administration's notion that
plants and animals don't need places to live was painfully evident in 2002 when, to appease irrigators, the Bureau of Reclamation
dewatered the Klamath River in southern Oregon and northern California, thereby killing 33,000 chinook and coho salmon (the
latter threatened), and further imperiling two species of endangered suckers. Those who blamed the administration were accused
by Steve Williams, then director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, of a "premature rush to judgment." And he went on to proclaim
that it was "too soon to draw conclusions" about what might have caused the biggest dieoff of adult salmon in history--roughly
the equivalent of a parachute manufacturer suggesting that skydivers scraped from asphalt might have died on the way down
from bird flu.
Even as Klamath salmon were expiring
the administration was jeopardizing four endangered fish and a world-class trout fishery on Colorado's Gunnison River by giving
away federal water rights.
That same fall Interior had declined
to appeal a bizarre court ruling that cancelled the water right of Deer Flat National Wildlife refuge in Idaho, a refuge
dedicated to waterfowl and important to listed species.
Where Pombo and his allies have
attempted frontal assaults, the Bush administration has favored flanking maneuvers. Consider Interior's machinations with
the threatened marbled murrelet which nests in old-growth rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. When the timber industry sued
Interior in an effort to get the bird delisted the administration declined to defend, and the Fish and Wildlife Service initiated
closed-door negotiations. It then bypassed its own scientists, whose data the timber industry didn't like, and hired consultants
to do a "status review." But the consultants also came up with the "wrong" answer--that ESA protection was entirely appropriate.
With that, Interior rewrote the report, reversing the findings.
Presiding over the rewrite was assistant
secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, Craig Manson, who boasts that his administration has "reduced critical habitat
in some areas by 90 percent" and submits that extinction might be okay. "If we are saying that the loss of species in and
of itself is inherently bad, I don't think we know enough about how the world works to say that," he told the Los Angeles
Times. And in an interview with Grist magazine, he questioned the "orthodoxy" that "every species has a place in the ecosystem
and therefore the loss of any species diminishes us in some negative way."
Federal agencies that permit or
undertake development in the habitat of a listed species must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine
Fisheries Service (NMFS) to determine if that species will be jeopardized. If a "jeopardy opinion" is forthcoming, the service
or NMFS must suggest "reasonable and prudent alternatives" or advise that the project would violate the ESA. To circumvent
this inconvenience, the Bush administration has proposed "self-consultation" by agencies like the Forest Service which are
controlled by interests they're supposed to regulate and have scant capability of assessing risks to fish and wildlife.
Moreover, Fish and Wildlife Service
Florida Panther biologist Andy Eller reports that he's been told by his superiors that the administration has forbidden jeopardy
opinions for any species no matter what. Eller was ordered to put a "positive" spin on his biological opinions about development
in endangered panther habitat. When he refused he was taken off panthers, harassed, and suspended.
On November 30, 2004, NMFS issued a biological opinion that the eight main-stem Columbia and Snake River dams, which are
in the process of eliminating 27 threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead stocks, don't count as fish killers because
they were built before ESA enactment and are thus part of the natural environment, like waterfalls. It was an astonishing,
unlawful action which contravened ESA's plainly stated recovery mission. But when the scientific and environmental communities
expressed outrage NMFS flack Brian Gorman declared that paperwork--not results--is all that's required of his agency: "The
Endangered Species Act does not mandate recovery; it mandates a recovery plan."
Then, on June 16, 2005, NMFS announced a policy to count domestic salmonids raised in hatcheries as wild fish when determining whether or
not a stock requires ESA protection, thereby tossing out all scientific data, including its own. Who needs clean, free-flowing
rivers when you can mass-produce fish in concrete troughs?
On February 21, 2006 the Fish and Wildlife Service announced its decision not to list the Yellowstone cutthroat trout as threatened, despite overwhelming
evidence from its own scientists that the fish is on the way out. Yet only 10 months earlier it had seen fit to jeopardize
one of the last strongholds of Yellowstone cutthroats by repealing the Clinton-era protection for roadless areas greater than 5,000
acres--the most popular initiative in the history of federal rulemaking.
This has allowed exploratory roads
to be hacked into the Sage Creek area in Idaho's Caribou-Targhee National Forest for possible expansion of J.R. Simplot Company's phosphate strip mine, a major Superfund
site spewing trout-killing selenium into tributaries of Crow Creek and the Blackfoot River. Concurrently, the administration
is proposing to replace the waterborne selenium standard of 5 parts per billion with the far laxer fish-tissue standard of
7.91 parts per million. According to Interior's resident selenium expert, Dr. Joseph Skorupa of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, "the proposed tissue standard would mean 50- to 90-percent mortality for cutthroat trout."
Brock Evans, former Sierra Club
staffer and now director of the Endangered Species Coalition, attributes the ESA's longevity to its "nobility and high-mindedness."
And he offers this thought: "Thirty-three years ago our lawmakers got together and said: ‘We're not going to let another
living thing go extinct in this nation or anywhere on this planet, if we can help it.' That's pretty impressive."
Indeed it is. And what's also impressive
is that, despite the perceived inconveniences of the ESA, 86 percent of Americans want to preserve it and keep it strong.
As a nation we loathe the thought of extinction. The ESA reflects America at its very best.
It does not consider "value" or "usefulness" or human concepts of "beauty" and "magnificence." With it we affirm our civility,
our unselfishness, our democracy.