Sides Line Up for Fight to Rewrite Endangered Species Act

WASHINGTON, DC (ENS) - House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican, is taking aim at the Endangered Species Act, the primary U.S. law for recovering species that are headed toward extinction. The congressman is marshalling his forces to rework the law in a way he says will strengthen it, but scientists and conservationists believe the planned changes will weaken the act to allow more industrial development. 

In preparation for legislative changes, Pombo Tuesday released a report, "Implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973," prepared at his request by the House Resources Committee’s Oversight and Investigations staff.

The Endangered Species Act has a 99 percent failure rate because only 13 species have fully recovered and have been delisted from protection, the report contends.

"No reasonable individual can conclude that the ESA is sustainable in its current form," Pombo said. "It checks species in, but never checks them out."


California Congressman Richard Pombo chairs the House Resources Committee. (Photo courtesy Richard Pombo)

The chairman says that because of the act, too few species are recovering and their recovery is costing too much money. The Endangered Species Act "has not achieved its original intent of recovering species," Pombo said. 

"The current program clearly costs billions of dollars, but insufficient economic information is collected to reasonably determine the true cost of the law, as all federal, state, and private expenditure reporting cannot be assessed," the staff report says.

"Expenditures by federal, state, and private parties on species listed based on erroneous data could total hundreds of millions of dollars. Funds spent on erroneously-listed species could be otherwise directed to species that are actually endangered or threatened," the staff speculates in the report.

"The ESA is obviously in need of a legislative update that will focus the law on strengthening results for species recovery," Pombo said. "This report will be an invaluable guide as Congress considers the best way to do just that. It has certainly become a question of how we improve this law, not a question of if."

In what Pombo calls the most "exhaustive review of ESA implementation" ever conducted, he explains that the staff considered federal economic information on the cost of implementing the act, species recovery reports from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and all Federal Register notices for delisted and downlisted species.

The staff report emphasizes the most recent report to Congress of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which states that 77 percent of listed species are classified in the Service's lowest "recovery achieved" category, having only met 0-25 percent of recovery objectives.

Only two percent fall into the highest "recovery achieved" category, having met 76-100 percent of recovery objectives.

The recovery status of 60 percent of listed species is either "uncertain" or "declining;" 30 percent are classified as stable; six percent are classified as improving; and three percent, 35 species, are classified as "possibly extinct."


Atlantic salmon are classed as an endangered species. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Pombo concludes that, "The ESA is obviously in need of a legislative update that will focus the law on strengthening results for species recovery. This report will be an invaluable guide as Congress considers the best way to do just that. It has certainly become a question of how we improve this law, not a question of if." 

Conservationists say the new report overlooks the most important function of the Endangered Species Act - the prevention of extinction.

"We hope Congressman Pombo is serious about improving Congress' record on recovery, because we join him in looking for ways to get species that are in trouble out of the Act's emergency room and back to good health," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "But he needs to recognize that before you can recover a species, you must keep it from tumbling over the final brink to extinction, and that's the Act's most important function, at which it has been extremely successful."

Schlickeisen's calculations differ from those of the Pombo staff report. He says, "Of the more than 1,800 species under the Act's protections, only nine have been declared extinct, a 99 percent success rate."

"The Pombo report also fails to highlight chronic under funding of recovery programs by Congress," said Schlickeisen, "and rampant political manipulation of the Act's implementation over the past four years that has devastated morale within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

In a letter Tuesday to members of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water, 10 renowned scientists warn that the Earth is losing species at an unprecedented rate and ask that Congress strengthen, not weaken, the Endangered Species Act.


Edward Osborne Wilson is the Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard University, where he has studied and worked for the past 54 years. 

The scientists, including Harvard's Dr. Edward O. Wilson and Stanford's Dr. Paul Ehrlich, call the Endangered Species Act, "the alarm system our nation crafted to warn us when species are facing extinction. It is the measure by which we halt species' decline and give species a fighting chance at recovery. Viewing our looming extinction crisis as a crisis for humans as well as wildlife, the importance of the Endangered Species Act takes on even greater significance. In the face of this crisis, we must strengthen the Act and broaden its protections, not weaken them." (The letter is published in its entirety here.) 

Conservationists and scientists say the act has not been in place long enough for listed species to recover

The Center for Biological Diversity points out that 1,082 species have official federal recovery plans created by university, industry, and federal scientists. The plans establish recovery goals, implementation steps and estimated time to recovery. A systematic review of all those plans shows that the average length of time projected for recovery is 30-50 years. Many species will require over 100 years.

Calling the Pombo staff report "inaccurate" and "poorly researched," the nonprofit organizations Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity and the Endangered Species Coalition say the entire move to gut the Endangered Species Act is politically motivated on the part of Congressman Pombo, who "has a reputation of attacking and misrepresenting the Endangered Species Act."

"In the past he was forced to publicly withdraw a claim that his family ranch had been rendered worthless because it was designated as critical habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pointed out that the species has no critical habitat," the groups said.

"The Congressman’s claim that the Endangered Species Act caused flooding and loss of human life in California in 1997 was rebutted by the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of California. Earlier this month the Congressman was charged with baldly misrepresenting the results of an Endangered Species Act review by the Government Accountability Office," they said.


America's national bird, the bald eagle, was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2000. Populations dropped in the mid-1990s due to pesticides that thinned eagle eggshells, preventing them from hatching. (Photo courtesy FWS)

“The mischaracterizations in this report are further proof that developers, and the politicians they give money to, are trying to weaken the Endangered Species Act, the law that prevented the extinction of the American bald eagle," said Liz Godfrey, program director for the Endangered Species Coalition. "They are manipulating science to fit their political agenda, and working to remove the checks and balances that help protect people from special interests." 

“The Endangered Species Act is a proven safety net for America’s imperiled plants and animals,” said Susan Holmes of Earthjustice. “This report is a recipe for undoing 30 years of progress and driving scores of species to extinction.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service last week released a new “candidate notice of review” designating 286 species as candidates for listing as threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. In the review, the Service acknowledges that these species warrant protection, but argues that such protection is precluded by other actions to protect species.

Most of these species have been waiting for years to receive protection and the Bush Administration has made little progress towards providing protection to them, conservationists say.

On average, these 286 species have been waiting for protection for over 17 years. Since the ESA was enacted in 1973, at least 27 species have gone extinct after designation as a candidate for listing, since candidate status offers no protection to species or their habitat.

“The Bush administration is simply failing to protect the nation’s wildlife,” said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Endangered Species Act is an effective tool for saving wildlife from the abyss of extinction, and the administration isn’t using it.”


Black-footed ferret at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center (Photo by Paul Marinari courtesy FWS)

The Bush administration has listed the fewest number of species of any administration, conservationists point out, and protection of the 32 species that has been accomplished since January 2001 has all been as the result of court orders. 

By contrast, 512 species were protected during the administration of President Bill Clinton, and 234 were protected under the administration of the current President's father, President George H.W. Bush.

The list of candidate species has gotten longer since the present Bush administration came into office. In 2001, there were 252 species on the candidate list compared to 286 today, reflecting the small number of species listed by the administration.

The Pombo committee staff report complains that the Fish and Wildlife Service is tied up with Endangered Species Act litigation and so cannot do its job of protecting species. Conservationists maintain that litigation is the only way species protection can be achieved.

The latest legal development - which pitted one federal agency and two conservation groups against another federal agency - was settled on Monday.

The U.S. Interior Department, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Utah Native Plant Society agreed to settle a lawsuit filed September 27, 2004 against the Fish and Wildlife Service seeking a critical habitat designation for two endangered Mojave Desert plants found only near St. George, Utah - the Holmgren milkvetch and the Shivwits milkvetch.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to publish a critical habitat proposal by March 17, 2006, and finalize it by December 16, 2006. This conservation victory is a part of the Center's Native Plant Conservation Campaign.

“Critical habitat works – it’s the most important action to recover endangered species,” said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center. “As wildlife habitat in the Mojave Desert is lost, so is the human quality of life. We offer to work closely with FWS to get a proposal done quickly to secure habitat for conservation and recovery, too bad it took a lawsuit to get FWS to move.”

To critics who might say that two species of milkvetch are not worth saving, the scientists point out in their letter to the Senate subcommittee that no species is too insignificant to be overlooked as a source of benefit to humans. "A bacterium (Thermus aquaticus) that lives in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park is the source of a compound called "Taq polymerase," an enzyme required for DNA fingerprinting in forensics and diagnostics," they point out.


Mexican garter snake, Thamnophis eques megalops, is threatened by habitat destruction and competition for prey. (Photo by Philip C. Rosen courtesy CBD)

The Center for Biological Diversity is continuing its campaign of lawsuits. On Tuesday, the Center filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service over its failure to list the Mexican garter snake as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in response to a December 15, 2003 petition filed by the group. 

An aquatic garter snake with a range that once covered Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and Mexico, it is one of hundreds of native riparian species that are threatened by the destruction and degradation of rivers and streams in the Southwest.

But the garter snake has been extirpated from most of its U.S. range, the Colorado, Gila, Santa Cruz and San Pedro rivers. “Without ESA listing and critical habitat designation, the Mexican garter snake population will continue in its dangerous trajectory of local extirpations and decreased range,” Greenwald said.

Livestock grazing, urbanization, pollution, loss of native prey species, and exotic species are blamed, and the Center points out that these factors have resulted in the loss of greater than 90 percent of the Southwest’s riparian habitat and the listing of 30 species under the Endangered Species Act.

“Southwest rivers have been under massive assault for over a century,” said Greenwald. “To protect southwest riparian species, livestock must be removed from all southwest rivers and streams on public lands, instream flows must be established, and further introduction of non-native species must be prohibited.”

Meanwhile, new species are still being discovered in the United States.

Researchers in the Klamath-Siskiyou region of northern California and southern Oregon this week annouced the discovery of salamanders that represent a new and distinct species.

A new species, the Scott Bar salamander, Plethodon asupak, was thought to be a Siskiyou Mountain salamander, Plethodon stormi, until genetic work revealed its unique evolutionary lineage.

“Everyone talks about how biologically rich the tropics are, but we are still discovering species right here in the Klamath-Siskiyou,” said Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, a conservation group. The species is considered a Pleistocene [from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago] and survived the last Ice Age. “This is really an exciting discovery."


Old growth forest in the Klamath-Siskiyou area is habitat for the new salamander. (Photo courtesy KS Wild)

The Scott Bar salamander occurs in northwestern California on rocky slopes under mature and old growth forest. The dense canopies of this forest type help keep the salamander moist. The species has no lungs, and instead breathes directly through its skin. 

Logging of old growth forest is the principal threat to this salamander’s survival and some populations occur on private industrial forestland.

Conservation organizations petitioned the Siskiyou Mountains Salamander and any distinct populations - including those that now represent this new species - for listing under the Endangered Species Act in June 2004. The Bush administration missed the 90 day preliminary deadline and is approaching the one year requirement for responding to the petition.

In April 2005, "BioScience," a peer-review scientific journal published a study entitled “The Effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act: A Quantitative Analysis." The study examined 1,095 species whose status was assessed multiple times by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service between 1989 and 2002.

It found that the longer species were protected under the act, the more likely they were to improve and the less likely they were to decline.

The study also found that critical habitat helps recovery and that species with critical habitat for at least two years were twice as likely to improve as species without critical habitat.

Species with dedicated recovery plans were more likely to improve and less likely to decline than species without recovery plans, the study found. Only 81 percent of ESA listed species currently have recovery plans.