Partnerships Crucial to Saving Species, Norton Says

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, March 20, 2001 (ENS) - Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Monday she plans to shift her department's conservation efforts from listing at risk species to "incentive based programs" aimed at reducing threats to dwindling species. Norton pointed to the Aleutian Canada goose, proposed for removal from the endangered species list, as an example of the rare successes of current efforts to protect vanishing species.


Interior Secretary Gale Norton (Photo courtesy Department of the Interior)
"I will work to change the tone in which we talk about conserving and protecting our environment," Norton told an audience at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference in Washington, DC on Monday. "I hope to foster a new culture of communication, cooperation, a culture of consultation - all to serve the cause of conservation."

Norton said she has asked her Interior Department employees to work on creative new ways to involve landowners, businesses and other public partners in cooperative efforts to protect threatened and endangered species - without resorting to mandatory restrictions on land use. The Wildlife Management Institute, sponsor of Monday's conference, will be among the private partners the agency will turn to for help, Norton said.

"By reaching out to all people and working together, in partnership with the states and with organizations like the Wildlife Management Institute, we can achieve better environmental results," Norton said.

"Our experience demonstrates that when we work together in a cooperative way, we can protect and even recover species," she continued, noting that cooperation between federal, state and private partners led to the recovery of the Aleutian Canada goose from near extinction.

In the mid-1970s, this subspecies of small Canada goose, found on just a few of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and in areas of California and Oregon, numbered only in the hundreds.


Once on the brink of extinction, the Aleutian Canada goose has made a dramatic recovery (Photo by R. Lowe. All photos courtesy USFWS)
Today, biologists estimate there are about 37,000 Aleutian Canada geese, and that the threat of extinction has passed.

"Each group and person involved worked together," Norton noted. "Biologists worked to eliminate introduced foxes from goose nesting grounds. The Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with California landowners to manage and protect wintering habitat on private land through title acquisition, easements and voluntary programs."

"Today the Aleutian Canada goose is being delisted," she said, calling the announcement, "a rare success story, but one that shows that partnerships can work."

Responding to charges by some conservation groups that she will not support or enforce the nation's primary law aimed at protecting rare species, Norton said she is committed to using partnerships to help implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"The ESA is not achieving our shared goal of recovering endangered species," Norton argued. "Today, there are over 1,200 listed species in the United States; yet, today's announcement was disappointingly rare. After massive efforts we have fully recovered only ten species since the law was first enacted in 1973."


Transplanted geese are released on Little Kiska Island as part of cooperative efforts to help the species expand its nesting range (Photo by E. Steele)
"At the same time, more and more private landowners have found themselves caught in the regulatory web of the ESA, making adversaries of the very people with whom we should be working to preserve habitat for species," Norton continued. "Over the next two years, I want to change the tone and dynamics of the ESA debate to improve the protection of threatened and endangered species and their habitat."

Norton said she thinks that the execution of the ESA can be improved administratively without resorting to legislative reforms.

"I have asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to identify measures that we can implement under the existing law that can build on the reforms that were promoted by the last Administration - such as the no surprises policy, habitat conservation plans and safe harbor agreements," said Norton. "Those were good first steps."

The Interior Secretary said the existing ESA program can be supplemented with "incentive based programs involving private landowners, conservation partnerships with the states, and other innovative programs that produce results."


A goose nest on Buldir Island - once one of the birds' last strongholds (Photo by T. Early)
Towards that end, Norton said the fiscal year 2002 Interior Department budget will include $60 million for landowner incentive programs that offer technical assistance and funding for private conservation efforts. Full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a Bush administration pledge, will include $450 million for state conservation programs.

"Obviously, an integral part of any collaborative effort to protect species and their habitat is ensuring that adequate resources are available to carry out the effort," Norton noted.

However, Norton did not indicate whether she would seek additional funds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency placed a one year moratorium on all new endangered species listings late last year, claiming it did not have enough resources to process new listings while defending itself from environmental lawsuits over past listings.