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
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