ksuckling at ksuckling at
Tue Dec 16 12:27:50 EST 1997

From: Kieran Suckling <ksuckling at> (by way of Steve Holmer <wafcdc at>)


Monday, Dec. 15, 1997 

At-risk species at risk from politics? 

by Danny Westneat

 WASHINGTON - In the clear, cold mountain streams of the
Pacific  Northwest, an unloved fish called the bull trout long ago
earned  notoriety for its massive size, up to 30 pounds, and its
propensity for  devouring schools of baby salmon. 

 But now the trout some anglers used to call a "garbage fish" is on
its  way to earning another dubious label: most litigated wildlife

 Since 1992, an environmental group in Montana has sued the 
government seven times to try to protect the trout, which
government  biologists have said is at "extreme" risk of becoming
extinct across its  range in Washington, Oregon, Montana and

 "I believe seven has got to be some sort of a record," said Eric 
Glitzenstein, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specializes in 
Endangered Species Act law. 

 More remarkable, however, is that the Alliance for the Wild
Rockies  has effectively won all seven lawsuits, and yet the fish is
still not on the  endangered-species list. 

 Last week, a federal judge in Portland ruled for the third time that
the  government has violated the law, and ignored the advice of its
own  biologists, by failing to protect the bull trout across its range.
Judge  Robert Jones said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was
"arbitrary  and capricious" in its latest decision not to protect the
fish in certain  areas, and he ordered the government to reconsider,
specifically for  the bull trout that remain in Puget Sound-area

 Environmentalists say that while the bull trout's tale of legal woe
is a bit  extreme, it's in some ways typical of a Clinton
administration they say  is increasingly seeking ways to avoid
invoking the Endangered Species  Act. 

 In a report to be released today, a group that represents 5,000 
government employees who work for natural-resources agencies 
contends the Department of the Interior is quietly "sabotaging" the 
endangered-species law by refusing to implement it. 

 Whether an endangered animal qualifies for protection has
become a  matter of politics, not science, and getting agencies to
follow even the  most basic parts of the 24-year-old law invariably
depends on  whether nonprofit groups take the government to
court, claims the  report by Public Employees for Environmental

 Nearly 300 plant and animal species are tied up in pending
litigation  nationwide, and notices of intent to sue have been filed
on behalf of  another 150 species, according to the report. 

 "The listing of endangered species right now is a function of the
legal  budgets of environmental groups," said Jeff Ruch, executive
director  of the public employees' group. 

 "In many ways, the Clinton administration has a worse record on
the  Endangered Species Act than either the Reagan or Bush 
administrations," said Mike Bader of Alliance for the Wild
Rockies,  the group suing over bull trout. "They simply will not
follow the law  unless they are forced to by a court, and sometimes
even then they  don't follow it." 

 Government officials say the environmentalists' complaints are
wildly  overstated. They concede that some species have not
received  adequate protection, but only because there are so many
species  higher on the priority list. 

 When asked about the comparison to previous eras under Reagan 
and Bush, officials for the Fish and Wildlife Service say the current 
administration has done a better job protecting wildlife already on
the  endangered list, and has added a record number of new
species, even  though budgets for the agency have declined. 

 Since he took office five years ago, Clinton has classified 378
plants  and animals as threatened or endangered. Bush listed 228 in
his four  years, and Reagan presided over 257 listings during his
eight years. In  1981, when James Watt was Interior secretary,
only four species  were added to the list. So far this year, Secretary
Bruce Babbitt has  added 72, and in 1994 he added 126, the most
ever in a year. Jimmy  Carter added 109 from 1977 to 1980. 

 "It's really nonsense what the environmentalists are saying," said
Ken  Burton, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "They
believe  there's a political conspiracy to undermine the Endangered
Species  Act, and it's a little like the people who believe the
government is  getting ready to attack in black helicopters." 

 A review of the program in the past two years, however, lends
some  support to the notion that federal officials must be sued to
give  declining species threatened or endangered status. 

 Last year and so far this year, 165 plants and animals have been 
granted federal protection, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife 
Service data. Of those, at least 65 were added only after 
environmentalists sued. Of the remaining 100, 75 were plants in
the  Hawaiian Islands that were added to the list on one day in

 In many high-profile court cases recently, including the case of the
bull  trout, federal judges have blasted the Interior Department for
not  following the law, ignoring studies conducted by the
department's own  biologists and, in several cases, allowing
political considerations to  determine the legal fate of an animal. 

 In the past 18 months, judges have ruled that the government 
incorrectly denied protection for bull trout and lynx in the
Northwest,  hawks in Alaska and Arizona, the jaguar in the
Southwest and a  salamander in Texas. In all the cases, the judges
said the government  failed to follow clear guidelines set forth in
the Endangered Species  Act. 

 Particularly singled out for rebuke has been the Clinton 
administration's strategy of negotiating compromise
land-management  plans as a way to avoid using the sometimes
blunt power of the  Endangered Species Act. These plans, called
habitat-conservation  plans, are signed with landowners and are
seen as a way of protecting  wildlife without damaging rural
economies or forcing regulations down  the public's throat. 

 Earlier this year, Clinton's top environmental adviser, Katie
McGinty,  said the plans don't subvert the species law but utilize it
"to its fullest  and most creative extent" by "working in partnership
with people who  own the land." The administration has signed
such agreements  covering nearly 20 million acres of land,
including major agreements in  the Cascade Mountains to protect
the northern spotted owl. 

 While it's too soon to know whether the approach is helping
wildlife  or preserving resource-dependent jobs, some judges have
been  finding that it's illegal as an alternative to the Endangered
Species Act  because an agency can't just decide on its own not to
follow the letter  of the law. 

 "Secretary (Babbitt) cannot use promises of proposed future
actions  as an excuse for not making a determination based on the
existing  record," Judge Lucius Bunton ruled in Austin, Texas, this
year when  he ordered Babbitt to declare the Barton Springs
salamander  endangered, which Babbitt then did. 

 The law could be changed in the session of Congress that begins
at  the end of January. A bipartisan proposal tentatively endorsed
by  Babbitt would increase the government's flexibility to negotiate
special  land-use plans and would reduce the ability of
environmental groups  to sue. Past attempts to change the act all
have failed, however,  because of a belief in Congress that for all
the criticism aimed at the  act, it's still popular with the public. 

 In the meantime, the suing will go on. Fish and Wildlife Service 
officials say they are working as hard as they can with limited 
resources. They say the lawsuits just divert staff members from
wildlife  work and usually do no more than move certain popular
species, such  as the lynx, to the head of the line. 

 In the Northwest, for instance, the agency soon is expected to 
propose endangered status for the Gentler's Fritillary, a lily in
southern  Oregon. There are only 340 individual plants known to
exist in two  counties, said Susan Saul of the agency's Portland
office. She  compared it to the lynx, which has declined
dramatically in the United  States but still is relatively common in

 "Now, looking at that plant and the lynx, which do you think will
wink  out first?" she said. "These are the priority decisions we
have to make,  because we can't do them all. The effect of all the
environmentalists  going to court is really only that they might get
a judge to force us to  pay attention to their species first." 

 The government also is being sued for sometimes being too
ambitious  in trying to resurrect some endangered species. These
suits are not  often as successful, though the most recent court
decision in the  nation, on Friday, found that the reintroduction of
gray wolves into  Yellowstone National Park three years ago was illegal 
because it  elevated the introduced wolves above naturally
occurring wolves in  the region. 

 In that case, the judge has taken the extraordinary step of ordering
the  government to remove the wolves that were already
introduced into  the wild. 

 "We kind of feel like we're in a no-win situation regardless of
what we  do on endangered species," Saul said. 

 Environmentalists say they understand it's a complex task to
protect  wildlife and also foster economic development, and they
admit there  are examples where government regulation has been
heavy-handed.  But they contend that, for the most part, the
Endangered Species Act  works, and if Clinton administration
officials feel that it doesn't, then  they at least ought to come out
and say it. 

 "Bill Clinton and Al Gore have gotten an enormously free ride on the  
environment for a long time, and they do not deserve it," said 
Glitzenstein, the environmental attorney. "There is a level of 
disingenuousness with them on endangered species that is 

 "If this kind of underhanded, blatant disregard for environmental law  
was happening in a Republican administration, they would be 
absolutely castigated." 


Kieran Suckling                               ksuckling at
Executive Director                            520.623.5252 phone
Southwest Center for Biological Diversity     520.623.9797 fax                      pob 710, tucson, az 85702-710

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