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Scientists Call For Tougher Species Act Panel Concludes Law ‘Critically Important’ For Biological Diversity

Thu., May 25, 1995

An expert scientific panel has concluded that the much-criticized Endangered Species Act is a “critically important” and successfully used tool for preserving biological diversity and has recommended that the 1973 law’s protections for wildlife habitat be strengthened.

Requested by congressional leaders almost four years ago, the report and its findings cut across the grain of current thinking on Capitol Hill, where Republican leaders in both the House and Senate are pushing for what could be a dramatic weakening of the landmark, but controversial, environmental legislation.

“In general, our committee finds that there has been a good match between science and the ESA,” wrote University of California geneticist Michael T. Clegg in introducing the report prepared for the National Research Council.

“To sustain a viable future for our descendants, we must find ways to preserve both species and ecosystems.”

Supporters of the law hailed the scientific report as a bulwark against upcoming congressional efforts to weaken the statute in a debate set to begin next month. “This shows the act needs some fine-tuning to make it stronger, and not a meat ax,” said Jim Jontz, a former Democratic member of the House who now heads up the Endangered Species Coalition, an umbrella group of conservation organizations.

Whether the scientists’ report will have much impact on the congressional debate on the ESA is questionable, however. Earlier this month, the House turned a deaf ear to the findings of another National Research Council report that strongly endorsed tough protections for wetlands because of their vital role in providing wildlife habitat.

Perhaps the most far-reaching proposal by the 16-member committee that conducted the study is to permit federal officials to designate what it called “survival habitat” for species immediately upon their designation as threatened or endangered, as a protection gainst further losses. Under the current law, the protection of habitat thought critical to the survival of an endangered species frequently comes years after the decision to list the animal or plant.

“Habitat protection is a prerequisite for conservation of biological diversity,” concludes the report. “Habitat protection is essential not only to protect those relatively few species whose endangerment is established, it is also in essence a preemptive approach to species conservation that can help to avoid triggering the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.”

The issue of protecting habitat is central to the escalating legislative and judicial debate over the ESA. Legislation introduced by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., that will likely serve as the vehicle for the Senate’s debate on the act’s future would shield endangered species only from actions that would directly harm them, but would allow habitat alteration or destruction.

The scientific panel that studied the ESA was not wholly uncritical of the law, which opponents have frequently portrayed in recent years as a blunt instrument that ignores human economic needs in favor of absolute protection for often obscure creatures and plants.

For example, the scientists faulted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for being too slow in designing recovery plans for imperiled species and for not having more explicit guidelines requiring the use of scientific data in developing such plans.

The report endorsed as “soundly based on science” another feature of the ESA that is likely to receive tough scrutiny in Congress this year: its protections for so-called “distinct populations” of species. Currently, if a geographic grouping of a species is believed to be endangered even though the species as a whole is not, that sub-population can receive the full protection of the law. Examples are the grizzly bear and gray wolf, which have robust populations in Alaska but are at risk of extinction elsewhere in the U.S.

Under Gorton’s bill, protections for sub-populations would be substantially reduced unless the secretary of the Interior finds that stricter measures are “in the national interest.”

xxxx HEARING Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, is bringing a congressional subcommittee to the Northwest to ask “what’s right and what’s wrong” with the Endangered Species Act. A hearing, one of a series scheduled throughout the country, will be held in Lewiston at 2 p.m. June 3, at the Ramada Inn. Kempthorne chairs the Fisheries, Drinking Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. Before the end of the year, he plans to introduce a bill revising the controversial law. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., has already come up with his own.

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