Species Protection Hits Budgetary Wall ; with Moratorium on New 'Endangered' Listings, Some Call to Revise Protection Act
Wilkinson, Todd, The Christian Science Monitor
The Buena Vista Lake shrew and the southern California yellow- legged frog are unknown species to most Americans.
But they have one thing in common: Though scientists say both have a high possibility of going extinct, each currently exists in a state of bureaucratic limbo with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with looking after the welfare of imperiled species.
In the waning days of the Clinton administration, outgoing Fish and Wildlife Director Jamie Clark, citing a budget crisis, said the agency would not consider adding more animals or plants to the federal endangered species list until at least the end of this year.
On one level, the budget crisis reflects the challenges of managing new-species listing on a budget of scarcely $6 million. But the moratorium was also a coded message to environmentalists: Back off. A proliferation of costly lawsuits isn't helping the cause of conservation.
The decision infuriated environmentalists - who defend lawsuits as a crucial factor behind much species protection - and now ranks as perhaps the only Clinton-era environmental order that the Bush administration is unlikely to challenge.
The decision also points, some say, to the need to revise the Endangered Species Act, which has fueled bitter battles between environmental and property-rights forces.
Indeed, both sides share one point of rare common ground. If the act, and species sheltered by it, are to survive, the law must provide some compensation for property owners who must safeguard imperiled creatures on their land.
That doesn't mean such revision will come easily. In coming months, Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah, who chairs the House Resources Committee, plans hearings on ways to "improve" the act, but skeptics worry this means industry-sponsored gutting.
"Everybody agrees the stick approach to saving species isn't affective. We're interested in reducing the level of fear associated with the act and giving land owners and industries more of a carrot to be more tolerant," says Marnie Funk, spokeswoman for the Resource Committee.
Caught in the ideological crossfire is the Fish and Wildlife Service. It faces court orders, stemming from environmental lawsuits, to declare "critical habitat" areas for 350 species already listed as endangered or threatened. The cost of those lawsuits has paralyzed the agency's ability to move other imperiled species onto the list, says agency spokesman Hugh Vickery.
Born of this budgetary frustration, the Service's decision to freeze new listings means that 245 "candidate" species are not getting the attention needed to slow their declines.
"When we look at what we can do to pull plants and animals back from the brink of extinction, we believe that getting them protected under the act is the highest priority," former Director Clark said. …