Endangered Species / Law
This week a U.S. House committee is hearing proposals to weaken the Endangered Species Act, and as usual the objections are rooted in myth: The law puts insects' welfare above that of humans, species get placed on the list without appropriate scientific review, the tracts of habitat placed off-limits to development are needlessly large.
The changes are sought by Republican Richard Pombo and Democrat Dennis Cardoza, who represent neighboring districts in California's farm country. Pombo, perhaps the most vociferous critic of the ESA now serving in Congress, is chairman of the resources committee that will entertain his ideas.
Both men know or ought to know better than to portray this law as a crippler of human enterprise. With few notable exceptions -- such as reduced logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest -- the ESA has had little impact at the top of the food chain. Indeed, a new survey of research suggests that it hasn't been all that good for the animals and plants it was intended to preserve.
The Center for Biological Diversity recently analyzed extinctions known to have occurred among U.S. species in the first 20 years of ESA (the law is 30 years old, but the accepted standard for extinction is 10 years without a sighting). Normally, four extinctions would be expected over that time span, but scientists and government agencies reported 113.
Of these vanished plants and animals, 91 had not even made it onto the protected list despite their obvious endangerment. Of course, listing is no guarantee of salvation; 22 species made the list but disappeared anyway.
By far the biggest contributing factors identified by the center were long delays in applying the law's protections -- sometimes because funds were scarce, sometimes because of political pressures, sometimes because of policy decisions to slow the pace of listing. On that latter point the Bush administration has, as usual, outdone its predecessors: On average, nine species per year have been listed under this president, compared with 65 under Bill Clinton, 59 under George H.W. Bush and 32 under Ronald Reagan.
But the law has saved species, too -- just for starters, the bald eagle and the timber wolf. Its many failures are no reflection on the ESA's objectives, nor even on its provisions, but on the government's unwillingness to fully honor the commitments it created.
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