Endangered Species Act Under Attack at Western Governors Summit

LA JOLLA, California, December 3, 2004 (ENS) - When the Western Governors Association Executive Summit convenes this afternoon at the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla, the 11 governors will have endangered species on their minds.

The lineup of invited speakers includes many of the nation's most vocal political opponents of the federal Endangered Species Act, worrying six conservation organizations. They said Thursday that "the summit is intended to provide a forum for those who are determined to weaken this landmark conservation law that has helped prevent the extinction of numerous rare animals, fish and plants."

In a joint statement, the Center for Biological Diversity, the nonprofit, public interest law firm Earthjustice, the Endangered Species Coalition, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club warned that for the opponents of the Endangered Species Act, "a Western Governors Association resolution that calls for weakening portions of the Endangered Species Act would be a great boon to their legislative efforts."

"The Endangered Species Act is now under attack by the Bush administration and Congress, and facing its greatest threat since its passage in 1973," the groups said. "Emboldened by their election gains, anti-environmental members of Congress have declared their intent to rewrite the Endangered Species Act to benefit developers and industry."

The Summit will be opened by Colorado Governor Bill Owens, a Republican who is the current Western Governors Association chairman. Tonight he will give the keynote address. Owens favors a conservation strategy that operates outside the Endangered Species Act system.

Owens

Colorado Governor Bill Owens announces $60 million in lottery funds will be spent on preserving open space. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Owens announced on Wednesday that $60 million of state lottery proceeds would be used to purchase or conserve 80,000 acres, including some sweeping landscapes that provide habitat for endangered species.

He said that $4.2 million of the lottery money will go to the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) for the Colorado Species Conservation Partnership.

This strategy entails the use of habitat conservation easements that provide incentives to private landowners to help manage and protect Colorado’s declining species.

In a statement Wednesday, the Governor said this partnership advances his goals "to prevent the further decline of wildlife species, recover declining species, reduce the necessity of further listing of species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and down-listing and de-listing species listed as threatened and endangered under the ESA."

The Colorado Species Conservation Partnership takes in DOW, the U.S. Department of the Interior, land trusts, and landowners.

For an example of the partnership's success, Owens points to the permanent protection of 4,600 acres for Gunnison Sage Grouse Habitat in Gunnison County.

The Western governors do not all agree that the Endangered Species Act should be weakened or replaced. “As a Western governor, I strongly support efforts to protect habitat,” New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said Wednesday.

“While I recognize the Endangered Species Act is a 30 year old law that can be improved, I don’t want to open up the entire law and possibly weaken it," said Richardson, a Democrat.

Richardson

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
“I am encouraged by the bipartisan collaboration in New Mexico that has resulted in a balanced water policy, protected the water rights for farmers and their communities, and restored habitat for the endangered silvery minnow in the Middle Rio Grande Valley," Richardson said.

Colorado currently has 16 species of vertebrates listed as federally threatened or endangered. Five additional species - Gunnison sage-grouse, boreal toad, black-tailed prairie dog, Arkansas darter and lesser prairie-chicken - are in various stages of review for federal listing.

This week a coalition of conservation groups filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force action on the lesser prairie-chicken listing, illustrating why critics of the legislation are unhappy.

Forest Guardians, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and three other conservation groups have put the Fish and Wildlife Service on notice that they will take the agency to court over its failure to protect the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act.

Joining Forest Guardians in the notice of intent to sue are the Center for Biological Diversity, the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance, and T & E, Inc. , an Arizona nonprofit corporation founded by Tom and Eleanor Wootten to further appreciation and preservation of native U.S. plants and animals.

The increasingly rare lesser prairie-chicken is still found in five states - Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas - but livestock grazing as well as oil and gas development are destroying its habitat, the conservationists warn.

In addition to these well known dangers to its survival, hybridization with greater prairie-chickens is endangering the lesser prairie-chicken in Kansas.

On November 23, Forest Guardians released a report, “Lesser Prairie-Chicken: The Sky Really is Falling,” which documents continued declines and threats facing the ground dwelling bird the group calls "critically imperiled."

In June 1998, the Service announced that the lesser prairie-chicken warranted Endangered Species Act protection, but was "precluded" from listing by higher priority species.

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The lesser prairie-chicken is an upland, grassland-nesting bird. In spring males like this one gather to show their unique courtship display for females. (Photo courtesy FWS)
Six years later, the bird has not been proposed for listing and remains an unprotected candidate species. The groups’ notice of intent to sue asserts that in the six years since it was deemed worthy of protection under act, the prairie-chicken has declined further as a result of continued habitat destruction.

The groups allege the Service’s excuses for not listing the bird are "fundamentally flawed."

“With the hardship of livestock grazing during drought and the onslaught of oil and gas drilling from the Bush Energy Plan, we’re losing this beautiful member of the natural and cultural heritage of the southern Great Plains,” said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, endangered species director for Forest Guardians. "We won’t sit by while this species continues to slip towards extinction,” she threatened.

The Service's current national policy directs regional offices to stop work on listing actions not under court order or settlement agreement unless additional funds remain to allow such work. The policy, started under the Clinton administration, has continued under the Bush administration, and it effectively prevents regions from finalizing listing on most “warranted but precluded” species.

The Bush administration has a track record of failing to protect species with a listing. While President Bill Clinton listed 65 species a year during his administration, and President George H.W. Bush listed 59 species per year, the current administration has listed only 31 species over four years, and all of these were under court order.

For species on the brink of extinction, the conservationists say, protection delays result in species declines. According to a 2004 report from the Center for Biological Diversity based on data from the Fish and Wildlife Service data, 83 species for which federal protection was long delayed went extinct from 1973-1995.

The groups also claim that the Service can no longer rely on its “warranted but precluded” status for the prairie chicken because doing so requires making “expeditious progress” in addressing the backlog of unlisted species, something the Service has failed to do.

This week, the Service faces another potential lawsuit over violations of the Endangered Species Act, this one in California.

On Thursday, the Center for Biological Diversity accused the Service of breaking by failing to respond to two scientific petitions to list species on California's Algodones Dunes, the largest sand dune system in California.

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Off-roading in a spider web of tracked naked sand, against the vegetated background of the protected North Algodones Dunes Wilderness. (Photo © Andrew Harvey Center for Biological Diversity)
Both petitions are for the protection of insects on the dunes that the Center says are threatened by irresponsible off-roaders.

A petiton to list one insect - the Andrew’s dunes scarab beetle - was filed by the Center in December 2002.

The second petition to list 16 Algodones Dunes endemic insect species as threatened or endangered was filed in July 2004 by the Center, Sierra Club, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an association of federal, state and local natural resources employees.

The 16 species in the second petition include two sand wasps, two bees, one vespid, two velvet ants, three jewel beetles, two scarab beetles, and four subspecies of Roth’s dune weevil.

“Protection of these interesting animals is needed, and required by law, because the Bush plan to sacrifice the Algodones Dunes to the off-road industry could cause their extinction,” said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center who formerly worked with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the California desert.

Patterson points out that under the Endangered Species Act, the Service is required to issue a finding on petitions within 90 days, detailing the agency's analysis of the information provided in the petitions, and a plan of action.

“The Bush Interior Department has again broken the law with their complete disregard for the unique and fragile web of life at the dunes,” Patterson said.

The greatest harm to Algodones Dunes wildlife is intensive off-road driving, says Patterson. "The dunes are hammered by upwards of 240,000 off-roaders on a single busy weekend," he says.

Conservationists also want critical habitat designated for all 17 species concurrent with listing, as required by the law.

Critical habitat designation is one part of the act that meets with resistance from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Critical habitat is a term in the act that identifies geographic areas that contain features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and may require special management considerations.

The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. It does not allow government or public access to private lands.

But still, in every critical habitat designation the Service has made during the Bush administration - all court ordered - the agency includes this statement. "In 30 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act, the Service has found that the designation of critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species, while preventing the Service from using scarce conservation resources for activities with greater conservation benefits."

The Fish and Wildlife Service, the primary agency responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act, would rather handle things differently. This weekthe Service a proposal to expand the conservation easement program along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front.

"Using conservation easements, the Service and private landowners have worked cooperatively to conserve nearly 60,000 acres of wildlife habitat in western Montana," said Gary Sullivan, state coordinator for the Service's realty program.

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Preble's meadow jumping mouse, Zapus hudsonius preblei, arrived in Colorado and Wyoming during the last Ice Age, biologists believe. (Photo courtesy Center for Native Ecosystems)
"Conservation easements are proven, effective tools for maintaining the rural character and agricultural land base vital to wildlife habitat conservation in this state," Sullivan said.

At the Western Governors Association Summit, one of the breakout groups will consider how the role of states in species management can be expanded.

"While the Act contemplates state participation in recovery, states have not traditionally had a central role in either the listing of species or in planning their recovery," the agenda document says. "This raises a critical question: In what ways could an enhanced state role facilitate greater species recovery, and what actions are needed - legislative changes or administrative implementation - to allow such an enhanced state role?"

Another breakout group will consider how to engage the "active and willing participation of private landowners" which the agenda document says "plays a critical role in species conservation particularly given the fact that species and habitats do not recognize landownership boundaries and encompass both public and private lands."

One conservation voice has been scheduled on each of the breakout panels. Whether they are considering the Klamath River salmon, the Preble's jumping mouse in Colorado and Wyoming, or the sage grouse throughout the Western states, the conservationists will be doing their best to support the Endangered Species Act.

They say the great majority of the American people agree with them. They point to a public opinion poll conducted in Feburary by Decision Research. The random sampling of 1,006 registered voters found that 86 percent of those polled want to maintain this safety net for fish, plants and wildlife in danger of extinction.