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The Planet

September 1997, Volume 4, number 7

Sierra Club Chapters Add Mussel to Federal Policy

by David Edeli

The Endangered Species Act has been America's greatest tool for protecting the Earth's vast array of plants, fish and wildlife and the habitat on which they depend. But the federal government cannot protect endangered species without constant monitoring by local environmentalists.

Annie Get Your Pistol-Grip

Take the case of Sierra Club Iowa City Group Conservation Chair Doug Jones. In the spring of 1994, Jones took his 9-year-old daughter, Rachel, on a canoe trip on the Iowa River. She was fascinated by the large piles of mussel shells that had been sorted by floodwaters and deposited on sandbars formed during the "100-year flood"of the previous year. The two adventurers brought home a bagful of shells.

After extensive research, Jones identified one species as the pistol-grip mussel, which is endangered in Iowa. In June 1997, Jones put together a Club outing and led five volunteers on another canoe trip to the area to search for live specimens. They discovered fresh pistol-grip shells that had been fished out of the river and eaten by raccoons or minks, confirming that a living bed of mussels was nearby, downstream from the defunct Iowa Electric dam. The silt-catching dam protects the mussels from high levels of siltation.

This find was critical for protecting the previously undiscovered beds as the state Department of Natural Resources is now monitoring the renovation of the dam with the health of the mussels in mind.

"There is a limit to what federal politics can do,"Jones says. "To make a difference, you have to get out into the wild. Working on endangered species from the armchair is not the same as going out and finding them."

Keep Off the Tall-Grass

Like Jones, the Iowa Chapter knows how to roll up its sleeves and get dirty. In a massive ecosystem reconstruction project -- the Walnut Creek Wildlife Refuge -- volunteer hours in the field have been indispensable to the success of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's efforts to reconstruct the endangered tall-grass prairie ecosystem.

Club volunteers have "scoured roadside ditches and cemeteries for seeds of the long-lost grasses of the prairie ecosystem, held fundraisers to benefit the refuge, and in others ways supported the effort,"says Club member Robin Fortney

Lizard Listing Lawsuits

In a court battle in Yuma, Ariz., the Sierra Club, led by San Diego member Edie Harmon, is one of six plaintiffs suing Fish and Wildlife on behalf of the flat-tailed horned lizard. In the nearly four years that the agency has delayed a final judgment about listing the lizard as an endangered species, habitat for the lizard continues to succumb to urban development, off-highway vehicle use, mining, agriculture and other impacts.

The judge ordered Fish and Wildlife to make a listing decision by mid-July. The agency decided to withdraw the listing proposal, so the Club is readying a second lawsuit.

Thirsty City, Thirsty Species

Sometimes, without the work of chapter-level activists, the ESA is toothless -- even when a species is on the endangered list. In Texas, the San Marcos salamander, the San Marcos gambusia, Texas wild rice and the Texas blind salamander are endangered species being forced to compete with the city of San Antonio for water. Until the Lone Star Chapter of the Club successfully sued the Department of the Interior in 1993 to protect the four species, the government had ignored their unstable existence.

Scott Royder, endangered species chair for the chapter, said, "We have to let people know that endangered species in Texas are not being adequately protected by the state or federal government. For the most part, developers can do anything they want."

Lode Attacks Natomas HCP

Indeed, "public watchdog"is often the most effective role the Club can play. In California, the Sacramento Group of the Mother Lode Chapter is watching after the Swainson's hawk and the giant garter snake, whose habitats on a deep flood plain north of Sacramento are being threatened by a proposed 7,000-acre mixed-use development. In compliance with the ESA, the developers included a habitat conservation plan in their application for a permit to build. As Jude Lamare, Sacramento Group chair says, "The developers submitted an ugly plan, and it was accepted the way they wrote it." The Club formed a coalition to review and comment on the HCP, and the chapter is now considering litigation because it still does not meet the needs of the two endangered species.

Lone Star Keeps Isle Quiet

Back at the Lone Star Chapter, endangered whooping cranes faced a similar threat. Staff Director Ken Kramer said that earlier this year a major victory was scored when Club volunteers and others opposed the construction of a hotel on the southern tip of Matagorda Island -- home to wintering populations of whooping cranes and other rare species. After the public put pressure on Fish and Wildlife, the agency rejected the proposal to construct the hotel.

Do the Right Thing

Boston staffers and volunteers are watching over the North Atlantic right whale, the worldŐs most endangered whale with an estimated population of 235 to 300. "It is the spotted owl of the East Coast,"said James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts Chapter. But the National Marine Fisheries Service consistently "bows to the pressure of the fishery industries,"he said, allowing fishing fleets to continue practices that fatally entangle right whales in fishing nets.

Volunteers Tim O'Connor and Vivian Newman and staff members in the Massachusetts Chapter office comment on all federal plans that affect the whale and participate in an advisory committee to come up with a way to keep whales from getting trapped in nets. Volunteers work to educate the public that the current fishery industry must be altered in order to save not only the whales, but the industry itself.

Canis Lupus Returnus

For two years, the Club's Grand Canyon Chapter has been pressuring Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to approve the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into a part of its historic range in Arizona. The Mexican wolf disappeared from the American wilderness in the early 1900Ős; today fewer than 200 exist in captivity, and no known individuals exist in the wild.

"The Club lined up pro-reintroduction speakers at hearings in October 1995, rallied press coverage, and lobbied the Arizona Fish and Game Commission to pledge its support,"says Southwest Staff Director Rob Smith. In March of this year, Babbitt decided in favor of reintroduction; the wolves are scheduled to be released into the wild in the spring of 1998.

Columbia Dams Fatal for Salmon

In the Pacific Northwest, where salmon runs on the Columbia River have declined in this century from 16 million adult spawners annually to fewer than 2 million, "salmon action committees" formed by the Club are at the forefront of protection efforts. "The cause of the decline is not overfishing, but habitat destruction,"says Jim Baker, campaign coordinator at the Sierra Club's Columbia Basin field office. Baker says the most serious impact comes from federal hydroelectric dams that interfere with juvenile salmon migration down the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The campaign advocates the early retirement of the four worst fish-killing dams in the Columbia basin. Salmon action committees in Seattle, Portland, Spokane and Boise also push the National Marine Fisheries Service to list as endangered declining salmon and steelhead runs in other Pacific Northwest rivers.


Club activists' efforts have had a lasting effect on a species' survival. "If it hadnŐt been for our lawsuits in 1978 and 1985, we would not be celebrating the recovery of the eastern timber wolf, one of the original species on the endangered species list, today,"says longtime North Star Chapter activist Harriet Lykken. The lawsuits limited the ability of private citizens to kill the wolves.

"The populations of the wolf have skyrocketed during this break from human persecution, and we haven't had any substantial problems,"says Lykken, director of the community coalition HOWL (Help Our Wolves Live). The eastern timber wolf has finally recovered; Lykken expects the wolves to be dropped from the list within a year.

"The ESA cannot function without constant vigilance by environmental advocates,"says Laurie MacDonald, the Club's national chair of the Endangered Species and Habitats Campaign. "Our challenge is to demonstrate to all Americans that the benefits of protecting our nation's unique natural heritage of animal and plant life and their habitat outweigh the costs, and that weakening the ESA is tantamount to overturning it. It's a hard road ahead, but with hard work, grassroots organizing and public education we can get the job done."

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