Environmentalists worry about species protections under Bush

Saturday, February 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The reclusive Mississippi gopher frog and the fearsome grizzly bear are among a host of rare animals facing an even more uncertain future, conservationists say.

They say habitat protections, recovery programs and funding are being neglected or scaled back -- allegations the Bush administration denies.

Balancing the protection of plants and animals with the needs and rights of businesses and homeowners has been a tricky endeavor since the Endangered Species Act took effect in 1973.

Now some environmentalists believe private interests, backed by conservative lawmakers and a Republican administration, are starting to tip the balance.

"Low budgets, weak implementation," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "It costs time, and endangered species don't have time."

Critics of the protection law said it created an expensive, unfair and burdensome bureaucracy that can cost people their land and their livelihoods.

Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association in Battleground, Wash., said the act is only popular among people who don't realize how it affects those who rely on the land.

Roughly 1,250 species have been listed as threatened or endangered since the law took effect. While seven species no longer exist, others -- such as the bald eagle -- have been brought back from the brink of extinction.

For years critics have complained that environmental groups use the endangered species law to tie up projects, like dams and airport expansions, in lengthy reviews.

Vocal opponents

Western Republicans have been the most vocal opponents, seeking to draw attention to what they say are examples of protection run amok.

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., said confusion over salmon protections contributed to the deaths of four firefighters in Washington state last summer. A Forest Service investigation concluded that some efforts to unload water on a wildfire were delayed over confusion about whether to take water from a stream where the protected fish live, but the delay did not cause the firefighters' deaths.

Endangered species law guidelines specifically put human life above wildlife protections.

Administration limits

The administration last year tried to limit the ability of environmental groups to get plants and animals added to the endangered species list, but the idea died in Congress. Now the administration is reviewing "critical habitat" protections for up to 10 protected species in the West, including a songbird called the California gnatcatcher.

Environmentalists are also worried about individual recovery efforts, such as a Clinton-era plan to reintroduce the grizzly to parts of Idaho and Montana. They say Interior Secretary Gale Norton is backing away from the proposal.

Norton spokesman Mark Pfeifle said a review is under way and noted the project is estimated to cost $2 million in the first five years -- more than the budget to reintroduce grizzlies in four other parts of the country.

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