By Holmes, Bob
National Wildlife , Vol. 33, No. 4
As soon as Mary and Harry Presley saw the half-acre lot with its palmettos and pine near Malabar, Florida, they knew they wanted to build their dream house there. The couple closed on the property, hired a builder and sold their old home. But when the builder went to the county courthouse for a construction permit, the Presleys discovered they had a problem: Their subdivision was home to the Florida scrub jay, a threatened species protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
"We had heard that if you had scrub jays, you'd never be able to build," says Mary Presley. "We were pretty upset, because we'd invested our whole life's savings in this land." But this story ends happily for scrub jays and humans. The Presleys agreed to leave part of their lot in wild vegetation, plant additional oak trees and maintain a bird feeder. With the jays provided for, the Presleys got their building permit within two months. They moved into the new house in December.
All across America, as human activity nibbles away at what remains of natural habitats, thousands of property owners are finding themselves important custodians of the nation's rarest species of plants and animals. And like the Presleys, many fear that some tiny insect or flower protected by the Endangered Species Act could bring a stampede of bureaucrats telling them what they can and can't do on their own property. But except for a few notorious confrontations, this fear has proven exaggerated.
Private habitat is, however, often critical for rare wildlife. Only half of U.S. threatened and endangered species turn up on federal lands, including parks and refuges. Animals that do use public land often rely on private land for much of their habitat, especially in the East and Midwest, where federal lands are rare. Even the West's threatened grizzly bears rely on private land for much of their critical spring habitat. "It's obvious that for the survival and recovery of species, we will need private landowners to use their land in a way that's sensitive to wildlife," says John Kostyack, a National Wildlife Federation attorney.
But that almost never means heavy restrictions. Kostyack has investigated about two dozen purported horror stories of landowners driven to economic ruin by the Endangered Species Act. "What we're finding in a lot of these stories is that they take a little kernel of truth and exaggerate it out of proportion," he says, "while the Fish and Wildlife Service is actually bending over backward to accommodate people."
More extensive surveys support that conclusion. Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) can veto any activity by other federal agencies that might affect endangered species on public or private land. For private landowners, such federal actions range from granting permits to fill wetlands to providing flood insurance. In a recent study, the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund found that over the six-year period from 1987 to 1992, the FWS evaluated 94,113 such actions. Of those, only 352 cases posed any threat to the species in question and just 91 - less than one in a thousand - were blocked, abandoned or had not been resolved as of late last year. Most of the blocked projects were not even on private land. They involved timber sales on public lands that would affect the northern spotted owl. A similar study by the General Accounting Office of the U.S. Congress came to much the same conclusion.
Of course, many actions that private landowners may wish to take - such as clearing brush or building a home - are not included in these tallies, because they never involve a federal agency. Still, the Endangered Species Act gives the FWS the power to step in and protect endangered animals in some cases. No one knows how often that happens, because no one has collected those data. But FWS officials in every major region in the country, contacted for this article, say the number of severe conflicts is small. …