Nobody cares when habitat dies
Cause habitat don't have big brown eyes -- Graffiti at an endangered species conference
Was there an American who did not thrill to the nationally televised release recently of Hope, an injured and rehabilitated bald eagle, at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge?
The event publicized the heartening rebound of the national symbol, up from a scant 417 nesting pairs in 1963 throughout the lower 48 states.
The comeback of the bald eagle, now at 4,000 pairs and climbing, was enough for federal officials to upgrade the big raptors from "endangered" to "threatened" and to envision full recovery.
But I doubt that many of those who watched Hope's triumphant flight realized the plight of the Endangered Species Act, the protective law that has been the wind beneath the wings of her species.
Though the law is maybe the nation's strongest environmental statute, it is under siege for supposedly causing "train wrecks" -- actual or feared collisions between nature and human commerce.
In the Northwest, it is the spotted owl vs. the loggers; in California, the gnatcatcher (a bird), the Delta smelt and the kangaroo rat vs. the land and water desires of developers and farmers.
In the East, it's the red-cockaded woodpecker vs. timber owners; and the Florida panther and a host of wetlands-related species vs. multiple human encroachments on the Everglades.
Opponents (supported by two Maryland congressional representatives) are mounting the most furious campaign to dilute the law in its 31-year history, saying that the nation cannot afford to preserve every species of minnow and songbird and snail.
But the campaign is misleading. For example, protecting all but a few of the 660 or so plants and animals on the endangered species list has not caused confrontations. The act ignores economic consequences only in the initial determination: Is a creature in enough danger of extinction to be listed for protection?
Once listing occurs, economic concerns get substantial weight in forming protective strategies -- which can include the killing or harming of an endangered species on some lands, in return for adding protection on others.
Another point to remember is that an endangered bird or beetle, no matter how tiny or obscure, is often a warning of worse things to come.
A typical case is the California gnatcatcher, in whose shrinking -- domain I spent a few weeks researching endangered species. It is endangered because Southern California building projects have replaced 70 percent to 90 percent of its habitat, an ecosystem known as coastal sage scrub that once covered vast parts of Orange County.
Without legal protection for the bird and its habitat, dozens more birds, plants and insects soon will be flirting with extinction.
In sum, the concept of "train wreck" may not be a bad one; the longer we postpone dealing with the gnatcatcher, the more wreckage will pile up on the tracks.
Nor is the gnatcatcher atypical.
In the Northwest, nearly 700 other species depend on the same old-growth forest habitat that is being fought over to preserve the spotted owl. And limiting water withdrawals to preserve the smelt in the Sacramento River Delta would restore health to a whole community of fish, from salmon to striped bass.
"One of the rarest things is to find a single species endangered in isolation from its habitat," a California biologist told me.
The act is, by design, the ultimate buck stopper. Its language is tough and uncompromising, because extinction is tough and uncompromising, too.
Though the federal law is a last line of defense, there is a woeful lack of other measures to serve as first lines of defense. No conceivable version of the act can make up entirely for bad local zoning and poor state land-use policies; for egregious mismanagement of grazing, mining and timbering on public lands; and for unregulated agricultural destruction of riverine wetlands.
Despite those gaps, there are plenty of ways to improve the act when Congress opens it up for amendments during the next year, for the first time since 1988. The simplest and maybe toughest change is providing enough money to do the job of species protection.
Though the Clinton administration has increased spending on endangered species, about 3,600 plants and animals -- a 20-to-25-year backlog -- remain in limbo awaiting the extensive studies required for listing. Others have become extinct while waiting for protection. And, for more than 90 percent of species on the list, critical habitat needs have not been identified and designated.
Overall, the act needs a broader, more preventive orientation, aimed at protecting habitat. Focusing on species rather than ecosystems has tended to channel resources toward the so-called charismatic megafauna, such as eagles, gray whales, wolves and panthers.
And the current system, which waits until a creature is about to become extinct, makes its recovery incredibly difficult.
Even with "successes" such as the whooping crane, there are fears that the gene pool is so narrow and the small populations so vulnerable to a catastrophic wipeout that they may not endure, despite complete protection.
This and other improvements are possible through bills already introduced in Congress (Senate Bill 921 and House Bill 2043). Neither promises truly major reform, but they are decent starting points. However, there is opposing legislation that would cripple the act -- Senate Bill 1521 and House Bill 1490, the latter strongly supported by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett and Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, both Maryland Republicans.
Had those bills been law, eagles in the lower 48 states probably never would have been protected, since Alaska had a healthy eagle population, and that would be preservation enough under the measures.
Also, a growing clamor nationwide by property rights advocates has so polarized Congress as to threaten chances of improving the act. Such groups take the ideological stance that compensation is due for virtually any government action that affects private land. Laws such as the Endangered Species Act, they say, squash "the little guy" who owns property.
Karen Strickler, who heads the Endangered Species Coalition, whose 125 environmental, scientific and fishing organizations support a stronger act, says:
"The real story is that so many little guys -- small landowners, farmers and forest owners -- are acting willingly as stewards of endangered species on their land right now all across the country."
Those who support weakening the act had better take a hard look at the practical result. Such a "bad" bill, if passed, would likely get President Clinton's veto. Then we'd be left with the status quo.
But continuing the present underfunded and reactive law will guarantee more "train wrecks," and more species that need protection forever. No businessman or property owner, except an ideologue, should want that outcome.