Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Scientists protest new reading of Endangered Species Act

Thursday 10 May 2007

More than three dozen scientists are protesting a new Bush administration interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, saying it jeopardizes animals such as wolves and grizzly bears. John Vucetich, a wildlife biologist at Michigan Tech University, and Michigan State University environmental ethicist Michael Nelson have circulated a letter opposing the revised policy. It was being sent this week to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and leaders of congressional committees that oversee the department. The change would enable the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the endangered species program, to protect animals and plants only where they are battling for survival. It wouldn't have to restore them in areas where they've died out, or protect them where they're in good shape.

"The senior career biologists who run the endangered species program are supportive of this," Interior spokesman Hugh Vickery said. "It enables them to focus their limited resources on areas where species are truly threatened or endangered." But critics say the policy makes it easier to remove species from the endangered list too soon, while preventing others from getting listed in the first place. They say it would have allowed the bald eagle to become extinct in the lower 48 states and the gray whale to die out in U.S. waters.

In their letter, the scientists said the change "will have real and profoundly detrimental impacts on the conservation of many species and the habitat upon which they depend." "The proposed rule would have, for example, allowed our national symbol, the bald eagle, to become extinct in the lower 48 states, and would have allowed the gray whale to become extinct in U.S. waters," they said. Particularly threatened would be species less widely distributed than in the past, including wolves, grizzlies and jaguars, said the letter, signed by 38 prominent wildlife biologists and environmental ethics specialists.

Among them were Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard University; ethicists J. Baird Callicott of the University of North Texas and Kathleen Dean Moore of Oregon State University; Craig Moritz, director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley; and Gary Meffe of the University of Florida, editor of the journal Conservation Biology. Vickery acknowledged it was unclear how the revised policy would affect particular species but accused the critics of exaggerating. He dismissed as "complete nonsense" the suggestion it would have doomed the bald eagle everywhere but Alaska if effective decades ago.

The revision was outlined in a legal analysis by Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt released in late March. He said the department needed to reconsider its definition of "endangered" because federal judges had rejected its previous reading of the law in eight of 10 cases since 2000. Those rulings came after environmentalist groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service for refusing to add species such as the flat-tailed horned lizard, Canada lynx, coastal cutthroat trout and Florida black bear to the endangered list. The debate centers on a provision in the Endangered Species Act of 1973 requiring the government to list any plant or animal "in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range."

Bernhardt disagreed with court rulings that "range" includes areas where species lived previously but are gone because of habitat loss or other reasons. What matters, he said, is whether they're declining in areas they currently occupy. Vucetich, who studies the predator-prey relationship between moose and wolves on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, said Bernhardt's definition of "range" would allow the department to settle for keeping remnants of a species intact somewhere. It wouldn't have to return them where people drove them out. Wolves, for example, are recovering in the upper Great Lakes region and the northern Rocky Mountains yet occupy only 10 percent to 15 percent of their former range, Vucetich said.

"They're not in danger of extinction any more, but have they recovered in enough areas to satisfy Congress' intent under the law? We would say no," he said. The new policy will give the department an excuse to avoid adding new species to the list, increasing the likelihood of extinctions, said Nelson, who published a scholarly paper on the range issue with Vucetich in 2006. Some environmentalists have predicted it also would prompt the department to purge its list of 1,300 species classified as threatened or endangered. Vickery said Interior had no such plans, but would reconsider individual species if citizen petitions request it.

Nelson said he and Vucetich invited environmental ethicicists to sign their letter because the debate involves values as well as hard science. "There's a serious moral disagreement here about how we regard the natural world," he said. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Virginia, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, was among members of Congress who received the letter. He said the panel would investigate "to ensure that best science is being used in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act." Five U.S. senators, including Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-California, last week sent Kempthorne a list of questions about the revised interpretation and other proposed changes in endangered species regulations. index.php/?2007/05/10/1127-scientists-protest -new-reading-of-esa

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