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In This Section
PDF March/April 2006
e-mail February 27, 2006
e-mail December 20, 2005


Why the Endangered Species Act Works...
Sierra Club Kicks Off 'Reality TV'
Largest-Ever Mercury Study
First You Trek, Then You Organize
The (New and Improved) Sierra Club
The Structure of Leadership in the Sierra Club
Who You Gonna Call? A Guide to Staff Resources
Introducing the Mentoring Program
Who We Are
Richard Sloan
Linda Ernst
Rod Hunter


PDF January/February 2006
The Power of Many
How We Saved the Arctic Refuge (For Now)
Getting Somewhere on the Bridges to Nowhere
Cities Get Cool
Measuring Mercury
Fighting for the Valle Vidal
Building Trust
There's No Limit to Colorado's Power
Finding Common Ground
Trickle-Down Activism
‘Hey, I Can Do This’
I Can Smell for Miles and Miles
Building Environmental Community One Canyon at a Time
Paper to Pixels
Sierra Summit Soars
‘Why Live If You Don't Have Something to Struggle For?’
Expanding Excom
Club Charts Direction for Next Five Years
Big Easy to Beltway: ‘Where's the Beef?’
2005 Timeline
Faces of the Sierra Club
Search for a Story
Back Issues

The Planet
Why the Endangered Species Act Works...and Why We Need to Keep It Strong

by Timothy Lesle

Congressman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) claims that there’s a big problem with the Endangered Species Act: He says only 10 of the species listed have recovered enough to be removed from the list (it’s actually 15), and the act is “a failed managed care program that checks species in but never checks them out.” In January, Interior Secretary Gale Norton extended the analogy, comparing the act to a hospital, adding, “The purpose of a hospital is not to keep people there.” The problem with that, says Sierra Club wildlife expert Bart Semcer, “is Richard Pombo and Gale Norton want to discharge patients from the hospital without giving them any medication at all.”

In fact, the Endangered Species Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, is a success story and a cornerstone of U.S. environmental law. It has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of all species ever listed, says Semcer. Among the high-profile species it has helped are the American alligator and the peregrine falcon, which have recovered enough to be removed from the list.

Back from the Brink: The American alligator, first listed as endangered in1967, was declared recovered in 1987 after Endangered Species Act protections allowed its numbers to rebound to more than a million animals in a belt stretching from North Carolina to Texas.

But it takes time for a threatened or endangered species to recover, and “most of these species are in such trouble that it’s going to take decades to restore healthy populations,” Semcer says. Species recovery plans average 30 to 50 years, and the average number of years a given species has been listed under the act is only 15.5 years.

That’s too long for Pombo, who, with Representative Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), introduced legislation that will drastically change the act. Pombo says it will improve the law, but Semcer says it will actually “gut” it.

What endangered species need most to recover is land—federally-recognized “critical habitats” carefully managed to promote recovery. Semcer points out that “analysis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own data shows that species that have had their critical habitat designated are twice as likely to be heading towards recovery than species without critical habitat.” But the proposed legislation will remove those very protections from tens of millions of acres of mostly federal land. And as a result, it will be easier to strip mine, clearcut, and graze in those habitats.

Besides removing habitat protections, Pombo’s bill would:

  • Pay developers, agribusiness, and polluters whatever they demand to obey the law and not kill fish and wildlife;
  • Give special interests access to government decision-makers by creating a mechanism for them to interfere with efforts to recover species and allowing them—but not citizens—to supply information;
  • Let politicians tell professional wildlife scientists how they should do their research and what kind of information they can and can’t use when making their conclusions.

Semcer says the bill is “all about funneling taxpayer subsidies to big developers and has nothing to do with protecting America’s fish and wildlife heritage.”

One of the more recent successes stemming from the Endangered Species Act is the Peninsular bighorn sheep, which lives in Southern California’s Peninsular Mountains. By the time it was listed in 1998, the Peninsular bighorn population had dropped by 77 percent due to sprawl, overgrazing, and diseases from domestic livestock. In 2000, only 334 individual animals remained. The next year, the FWS designated 854,000 acres of critical habitat for the sheep, and, with the Bureau of Land Management, instituted management practices such as closing illegal roads and removing livestock. Meanwhile, local communities incorporated bighorn conservation into their planning decisions. Joan Taylor of the Tahquitz Group (San Gorgonio Chapter) has been working to protect the bighorn for 35 years and drafted the original petition to FWS. “Without a doubt,” she says, “federal listing has helped.” In 2003, the California Department of Fish and Game estimated that 500 Peninsular bighorn lived in the wild, marking a 49 percent increase in five years. Now, says Taylor, “the population has doubled.” She’s currently involved in protecting lambing areas crucial to bighorn recovery. “This is the kind of thing we’re just going to have to keep working on.”

Please sign the Sierra Club’s petition to Senate leaders, telling them that you support protection for endangered species and urging them to oppose Pombo’s bill.



Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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