Noah's Ark or Nuisance? ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT

Article excerpt

PROTECTING plants and animals from extinction would seem an idea all could embrace. Who would want to stand by while the grizzly bear or bald eagle became history? But the Endangered Species Act - a law the United States Supreme Court calls "the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species ever enacted by any nation" - is under heavy political attack. It hasn't worked, critics say, and it has become a bureaucratic nightmare and a threat to private property. The law's supporters respond that it has helped bring many species - including the bald eagle - back from the brink of destruction. And at a cost of less than a dollar a year per American to implement, they add, it's a bargain. HISTORY: The ESA was signed into law by former Republican President Richard Nixon in 1973. It provides for the listing of "endangered" species (those "in danger of extinction") as well as "threatened" species likely to become endangered in the future. Species are defined as subspecies like the northern spotted owl and specific populations (such as grizzlies, which are listed in the lower 48 states but not Alaska). Under the law, no one may "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect ..." listed fish or wildlife. US Fish and Wildlife Service regulations extend "harm" to include damage to a species' environment, where it significantly impairs behavioral patterns. The Supreme Court upheld this concept in June. The law requires officials to designate "critical habitat" for species and also to design "recovery plans." The recent reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park is an example of such a plan. SPECIES DECLINE: Federal officials estimate more than 500 native species in the US have gone extinct over the past 200 years - half of those since 1980. The number of listed plants and animals has grown to more than 900 - with 4,000 "candidate" species waiting for consideration. …