SEATTLE TIMES USFWS EXPOSE
ksuckling at sw-center.org
ksuckling at sw-center.org
Tue Dec 16 12:27:50 EST 1997
From: Kieran Suckling <ksuckling at sw-center.org> (by way of Steve Holmer <wafcdc at igc.apc.org>)
SEATTLE TIMES EXPOSE OF SYSTEMATIC E.S.A. VIOLATIONS
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
Kieran Suckling ksuckling at sw-center.org
Executive Director 520.623.5252 phone
Southwest Center for Biological Diversity 520.623.9797 fax
http://www.sw-center.org pob 710, tucson, az 85702-710
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