August 14, 2008

In Our View: Lame-Duck Threat

Like any living document, the Endangered Species Act is imperfect and subject to refinement. Among its flaws: Even some environmentalists say the 35-year-old act is cumbersome, and protective lists are too difficult to update efficiently.

But any refinements should be enacted by Congress, not by a lame- duck president. According to a report by The Associated Press, President Bush's administration is "proposing changes that would allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether subdivisions, dams, highways and other projects" will endanger any of the 1,353 animals and plants listed as threatened or endangered.

If these rules are changed, essentially by presidential fiat, an eminently logical review system would be bypassed. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service no longer would provide input on how projects could or could not affect endangered species. Instead, other government agencies would decide for themselves; in many cases the officials would be unqualified or unmotivated to make informed decisions.

Also under the proposed rule changes, agencies could not consider a project's contribution to global warming. (Three months ago the polar bear was the first species declared as threatened because of climate change).

The hackneyed "fox guarding the henhouse" analogy has been heavily deployed by environmentalists after the AP's report this week, but it's an accurate metaphor. And Clark County residents don't have to look far to see the contributions of the Endangered Species Act. Think bald eagle, and think Ridgefield. The American bald eagle was listed as endangered in 1976, then reclassified as threatened in 1995. Last year the symbol of American freedom was removed from that list after the eagle population, which had declined to 417 pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963, had rebounded to many thousand breeding pairs.

Several nesting pairs are in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, and another 30 or so visit the site during migration, to the delight of birders and other refuge visitors. The entire Northwest has become a laboratory of success for the eagle's return.

Elsewhere in our state, Puget Sound orcas (only 89, according to one report) were listed three years ago by the National Marine Fisheries Service as endangered. Also, more than two dozen species of West Coast salmon and steelhead are listed, including 13 species in the Columbia River basin.

Again, the Endangered Species Act is not perfect. Too few success stories have been recorded. But there are enough to make the effort worthwhile. The Yellowstone grizzly was delisted last year after the population rebounded. The peregrine falcon and the gray whale have been delisted after returning to healthy numbers. Progress is seen in burgeoning populations of listed animals such as whooping cranes, gray wolves, sea otters and many others.

Much of the credit for this success goes to scientists and other experts in key government departments such as Fish and Wildlife, and Marine Fisheries. A vital ingredient in protecting endangered species is to let these highly trained, independent specialists do their work.

President Bush should abandon any ideas about single-handedly reforming the Endangered Species Act. It would take months or longer for Congress or the next president to reverse these changes. Whatever changes are worthy should be legislated, not mandated unilaterally by an administration in its final months. More than two dozen species of West Coast salmon and steelhead are listed.

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