A recent study sponsored by the state of Texas and the city of Austin concluded that the Barton Springs salamander was “one of the most endangered vertebrate species in North America, if not the most endangered.” Local citizens have drafted petitions, sported T-shirts, and devoted a Web site to the salamander’s plight. There’s just one problem: The federal government doesn’t recognize it as endangered.
The Endangered Species Act protects plants and animals from hunting, harassment, and the destruction of habitats. More than 101 species are already extinct in the United States, and another 450 are presumed lost forever. Under the act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must act to restore species it determines are “threatened” or “endangered.” But until the FWS actually lists a species, it has no legal obligation to save it.
By law, FWS listings must be based solely on scientific judgment. But powerful political forces are looking to override science. From 1989 through 1995, some 176 PACs — ranging from home builders to the oil and timber industries — contributed $43 million to members of the 104th Congress in an effort to weaken the act. Some conservationists charge that the Clinton administration bends too easily to these forces, pointing to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s tendency to craft compromise agreements rather than push for endangered status.
The average person might not miss a salamander here, a wolf there. But the troubling truth is that the loss of animals like those noted here may signal the decline of entire ecosystems.
The Alabama sturgeon once teemed in Southeastern rivers now polluted from nearby Superfund sites. But as its numbers plummeted, the FWS never listed it as threatened or endangered. Politics are the likely reason: In 1993, the FWS proposed listing the sturgeon, but Alabama senators Howell Heflin and Richard Shelby asked Interior Secretary Babbitt not to, arguing that protecting the fish would wreak havoc on the industries that depend on river transportation. Two years ago the FWS sidestepped the issue by announcing that the fish might already be extinct. Four months later, a fisherman caught a 30-inch sturgeon — only the second one caught in the past decade. The Biodiversity Legal Foundation has filed a suit against the FWS for not listing the fish.
The cactus wren is a common Southwestern bird, but its coastal cousin, which lives around San Diego County, numbers only about 2,000 pairs. These wrens evolved different traits over the centuries, and in 1991 an FWS biologist warned that “the projected growth of Southern CaliforniaÉis likely to cause the extinction of the coastal cactus wren.” But an FWS division chief advised that listing the bird as threatened would pose “significant policy and political problems.” Why? According to a letter from Southern California home builders to Interior Secretary Babbitt, it “would have a detrimental impact on California’s housing industry, which has not yet recovered from the recession.” In 1995, the FWS dropped the issue, claiming the coastal bird was not distinct from its inland — and unthreatened — relation.
Time is not on the side of the Florida black bear. With a population of about 1,000, it has languished on the FWS waiting list since 1982. It lives primarily on federal lands also used by dirt bikers, loggers, and berry pickers. Until three years ago, hunters still shot more than 40 bears a year, and even today vehicles kill some 50 annually. In 1992, the FWS decided the bear deserved to be listed as threatened, but couldn’t be because the agency was too busy. That same year, a legal settlement forced the FWS to make decisions on a backlog of more than 440 species by last September. Now the Clinton administration is trying to get out of the agreement, with 85 species — including the bear — still in limbo.
The explosion of growth around Austin, Texas, has made the Edwards Aquifer a valuable water source, and developers have received state exemptions from local water quality laws. But the already rare Barton Springs salamander is very sensitive to the petrochemicals and heavy metals tainting the aquifer. In February 1994, the FWS proposed listing the salamander as endangered, arguing that one environmental catastrophe could “eliminate the entire species.” But a year later, Gov. George Bush asked Interior Secretary Babbitt to hold off on federal intervention. Last August, the FWS caved. A month later, an Austin city survey counted only seven salamanders.
The clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest jeopardizes the Sitka black-tailed deer — and, by extension, its major predator, the Alexander Archipelago wolf, whose population stands at only about 1,000. Outspoken Alaska Rep. Don Young, chair of the House Resources Committee, decorates his office with bear and wolf skins, so it’s no wonder that a 1994 FWS memo concluded that not protecting the wolf would be the “least controversial option with agencies, industry, and the Alaskan delegation to Congress.” Still, there’s hope: Last October, in a suit brought by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, a U.S. district judge struck down the FWS decision not to list the wolf, and ordered the agency to reconsider.