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July/August 2000 Planet Main
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The Planet Newsletter

Gray Wolf to be De-Listed: Too Soon, Club Says

by Johanna Congleton

Claiming the species is no longer near extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June proposed weakening protections for the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act.

In 21 states, all federal protections would be eliminated, and in 18 states they would be reduced. The proposal leaves ill-equipped state wildlife agencies responsible for most of the species' management and diminishes chances for wolf recovery across the country.

The agency touts this as a success story - proof the ESA works. But Sierra Club activists argue it's a false victory.

"Although wolf populations have grown in some areas, that good news could be short-lived without continued federal protection under the ESA," said Bart Semcer, chair of the Club's Wildlife and Endangered Species Committee. "A level of killing would be allowed that we haven't seen since the days wolves were hunted for a bounty; Fish and Wildlife plans to be very lenient in defining circumstances under which wolves can be killed."

In California, Nevada and 19 other states, the agency plans to eliminate federal gray wolf protections. Activists fear this will doom efforts to reintroduce wolves to their native ranges; without ESA protection there is no requirement for a recovery program.

"A successful reintroduction program will be almost impossible," said Semcer, "because there are no legal incentives to conserve habitat, prevent killing or even reintroduce them at all."

In parts of the Northeast, the gray wolf would be reclassified from "endangered" to "threatened." This means they are no longer on the verge of extinction, but are still imperiled. Protections would be reduced; for example, they could be trapped or hunted if caught raiding livestock. Ironically, gray wolves no longer exist in this region. Fish and Wildlife has prepared a plan to reintroduce wolves to their native Northeastern ranges. While the Club welcomes this effort, there is concern that the reintroduction plan will never be implemented if the wolf is reclassified.

"None of the state agencies has expressed eagerness to reintroduce the wolf and some state legislatures have even passed laws prohibiting it," said Semcer. "While the government plans to give the authority to manage wolves to state agencies, it does not require them to pursue reintroduction."

"We need the federal Endangered Species Act to continue to protect vulnerable gray wolf populations," said Tina Arapkiles, the Club's Southwest regional representative. "Reintroducing large predators in the Southern Rockies is key to restoring a balanced, diverse ecosystem; wolves keep elk and deer herds strong by weeding out the weak and old."

The final blow to successful gray wolf recovery is Fish and Wildlife's call for nationwide management using "lethal control," which is usually permitted only in extreme instances of threats to livestock and humans. However, using a loophole in the ESA, the new proposal expands the circumstances under which wolves can be killed.

"In the Northeast, if wolves were to ever return, they could be killed if hunters felt they were eating too many deer," said Semcer. "Even worse, in anticipation of lessened protections, the Minnesota state legislature has already approved a plan that will eliminate wolves from entire portions of the state."

To Take Action: Although a date had not been set when The Planet went to press, the Fish and Wildlife Service will be taking public comments for the new proposal - so write now. Tell them you oppose their plan because it will destroy the progress made so far on wolf recovery and doom efforts to reintroduce wolves to their native ranges. Also urge the agency to consider a separate recovery plan for the Southern Rockies. Write to Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.

For More Information: Contact Bart Semcer at and Tina Arapkiles, (303) 449-5595;

Hoboken Mercury Scare Bares Limits of Brownfields Cleanup

by Johanna Congleton

In 1993, 32 New York City artists bought an aged, five-story building in Hoboken, N.J., hoping to escape the high rents in Manhattan. The building was formerly owned by a mercury lighting company and located on a "brownfield" - an abandoned or little-used industrial site where hazardous waste still lingers. But the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection gave the site a clean bill of health, and the artists moved in. Two years later, two-thirds of them tested positive for dangerously high levels of mercury - a substance that causes brain and kidney damage.

The state's environmental department hadn't checked for residual mercury. The agency claimed mercury testing wasn't required and that it lacked the resources to do so.

So when pools of mercury were discovered under the flooring and in crawl spaces, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in. Tests found mercury levels in the air 1,000 times above the federal safety level.

If properly cleaned and redeveloped, brownfields - which include old gas stations, abandoned industrial lots and even former dry cleaning facilities - can provide an alternative to suburban sprawl. A clean brownfield can revitalize an urban area and make use of existing infrastructure.

Although the Club supports restoring brownfields to productive use, improper brownfield cleanup and redevelopment can pose serious threats to public health - as clearly illustrated in the Hoboken case. And the already hobbled brownfield-cleanup standards are in danger of being weakened.

Under current law, the EPA can order immediate action to clean up a brownfield that endangers people or the environment. So if a state cleanup or assessment is insufficient and results in a threat to human health, the EPA has the option of using a "federal safety net" to protect the public.

But developers are building congressional support to introduce several bills that would bar the EPA from stepping in. In most states, developers are responsible for cleanup, so rolling back the federal safety net means rolling out their own red carpet.

"The federal safety net's extra muscle is critical to proper brownfield cleanup and maintenance - without it there is no recourse when state programs fail," said Marti Sinclair, vice chair of the Club's Environmental Quality Strategy Team. "Some states have not committed the funding to enforce their brownfield laws; citizens depend on the threat of federal action."

As for the brownfield in Hoboken, the artists have been permanently relocated and the building is scheduled for demolition.

To Take Action: Contact EPA Administrator Carol Browner and urge her to oppose any legislation that would weaken the federal safety net. Also tell her strong cleanup standards and public participation are vital to any brownfield legislation. Write Carol Browner, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 410 M St. SW, Washington, DC 20460;

For More Information: Contact Marti Sinclair, (513) 674-1983; or visit

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