Aiding industry, the Bush administration abandons endangered species
By Jennifer Hattam
Whats an endangered fish without water to swim in? Thats the question environmentalists are asking since the Bush administration withdrew key habitat protections for 19 endangered populations of Northwest salmon and steelhead.
An initial listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) only affects the place where an animal currently lives. A "critical habitat" designation adds protection to areas considered essential for its recovery, which may include large tracts of its historic range. "By the time a species gets listed as endangered, its range has often been greatly restricted," says Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Congress added this habitat provision to the ESA because they wisely realized that merely putting a species on the list and not identifying areas needed for its survival wouldnt do the job."
Yet only about 10 percent of endangered and threatened species have critical habitat to call their own. "Ever since the Reagan administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service has taken the position that critical habitat wasnt necessary," says Galvin. But the courts have seen it differently. Frustrated with the foot-dragging, environmentalists successfully sued to force the Clinton administration to designate millions of acres for hundreds of species. Now business groups are countersuing to undo those protections, and the Bush agencieswhich are supposed to defend species in courtseem willing to let industry win.
In the case of the Northwest salmon, the plaintiff was the National Association of Home Builders, which called the habitat designations "excessive, unduly vague, not justified as essential to conserve the listed species, and not based upon a required analysis of economic impacts." In May, the National Marine Fisheries Servicewhich, along with the Fish and Wildlife Service, is charged with enforcing the ESAsettled the lawsuit by withdrawing the protections. The settlement affects 150 watersheds, rivers, bays, and estuaries in four states, including Puget Sound and the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
In a similar case last year, a New Mexico court ruled against the Fish and Wildlife Service when a cattle-growers association challenged the critical-habitat designation for the southwestern willow flycatcher. Citing that loss, the Bush administration says it anticipated defeat in the suit filed by the home builders. Environmentalists note that the builders group donated almost $1.2 million to Republicans in the 19992000 election cycle.
"What we have here is the administration looking for opportunities to cut deals that undermine environmental protections and standards," says Bill Arthur of the Sierra Clubs Northwest office. "And one way to do that is to simply have your corporate contributors file a suit against the laws you dont like."