Rebecca Clarren (Courtesy of Rebecca Claren)
A document leaked from the Fish and Wildlife Service calls for changes to the Endangered Species Act that would dramatically curtail the protections the act offers. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with reporter Rebecca Clarren, who was leaked a copy of the report and wrote about it for Salon.com. Living on Earth then turns to a spokesman from the Fish and Wildlife Service for a response.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
The federal Endangered Species Act is one of the nation’s most powerful and controversial environmental laws. Listing an animal as endangered can silence chain saws and stop bulldozers dead in their tracks.
For years there have been efforts in Congress supported by the Bush Administration to loosen the constraints of the law on landowners and industry. These efforts have all failed, but now it seems that at least some officials of the agency responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act would like to change the way it’s implemented and without the ok from congress. The plan is detailed in a secret draft report that’s been circulating within the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rebecca Clarren, a freelance reporter got her hands on a leaked copy and wrote about it in Salon dot com. She joins us from Portland, Oregon. Hi Rebecca.
CLARREN: Hi there. How are you?
GELLERMAN: I’m well but according to your article in Salon.com the Endangered Species Act is in trouble. Tell me about these proposed changes.
CLARREN: Well, the number of species that would be protected would be limited, the number of acres of wildlife habitat that could be preserved would be curtailed. State governments would have the authority and the opportunity to take over the act from the federal government. At the end of the day Fish and Wildlife Service would have a lot less power to do what congress asked them to do which was to protect fish and wildlife from going extinct.
GELLERMAN: Let’s look at these proposed changes a little more carefully. Ah, the number of species that could be protected, how would this change that?
CLARREN: Well, right now when the service sets out to decide how to make sure if an animal is deserving of landing on this list and getting federal protection, they’ll look at, into the foreseeable future how likely is it that a species is going to die out. Foreseeable future is a nonspecific term; it could be 30 years, it could be 300 years. So instead it narrows that definition. It says foreseeable future actually means, regardless of what species we’re talking about, it means twenty years or ten generations. And why that’s troubling is twenty years! Think about species like orca whales or grizzly bears or wolves. Well, they live a long time. So how is it in twenty years they’re going to go extinct. It’s not. My sources told me that a vast majority of species currently on the Endangered Species Act, under this new regulatory change, wouldn’t be eligible to wind up with federal protections.
GELLERMAN: Well, what about shifting the authority to enforce the act from the federal government to the states?
CLARREN: We have a history, especially here in the west, of conservative state governments not wanting to protect endangered species because to do that often has meant not allowing logging or mining or some natural resource extraction to go forward. So state governments haven’t demonstrated the will to protect endangered species. It’s why we created, as a nation, the act in the first place in the 1970’s.
GELLERMAN: Now, protecting species means, really, protecting habitats. How would this dilute the legal barriers that protect habitats?
CLARREN: That’s a great point. So right now, you know, under current regulations when you’re looking at how to reintroduce a species or make a species come back from the brink of extinction, you look at protecting wide chunks of landscape or rivers and streams to give species that sort of breathing room to come back. And yet under the proposed regulation it would change it from looking at where they historically were, when they were a thriving population, to where they are now. And so if you decide that they’re only going to get protected in the range where they are, that’s a way of just maintaining the status quo. It doesn’t give them that opportunity to re-grow their historic population base.
GELLERMAN: I can’t imagine that people that are in the Fish and Wildlife Service, at the grassroots level, think much about this.
CLARREN: No. I’ve actually heard from a number of sources that it’s a pretty grim feeling there at the agency. I think in many ways that’s why I was leaked a copy. One man told me, who’s recently retired which is why he could talk on the record, said we’re like a bunch of whipped dogs there at the agency these days.
GELLERMAN: Where do these ideas come from, Rebecca?
CLARREN: Well, I think it is no secret that this administration has never been a huge fan of the Endangered Species Act. Um, So they appointed Dirk Kempthorne, who was Idaho governor and was also served as senator from Idaho in the late 90’s and this is a man who has never been a fan of endangered species protections in his state. He wrote some legislation that would have really over hauled the Endangered Species Act back then that congress shot down. But a lot of the regulatory changes come from that. They also, looks like a lot of the language is lifted directly from a very contentious bill by Pombo, a congressman from California, former congressman, that was also shot down in congress. So you’re seeing the Bush administration trying to insert into regulatory changes, things that congress has already decided we, as a country, didn’t want to see.
GELLERMAN: Rebecca Clarren is a frequent contributor to Salon.com. Rebecca, thank you very much.
CLARREN: Thank you so much.
GELLERMAN: Rebecca Clarren’s article about proposed changes to the endangered species act appears on Salon dot com and was based upon leaked documents from the Fish and Wildlife Service. We called the agency for comment and got this response from spokesman Chris Tollefson.
TOLLEFSON: All of us recognize that the ESA is one of the most important environmental laws ever enacted. But there’s also a recognition that every law could be improved. And so, you know, the secretary came to us as an agency and said, “You know, take a look at it and see what you can do.” This is nothing that is happening under the radar, this is how we always develop policies and regulations. This will be a very public process.
GELLERMAN: U. S Fish and Wildlife spokesman Chris Tollefson. After this story broke, the chair of a key congressional committee told the Director of the Agency that only Congress can make fundamental changes to the Endangered Species Act.
[MUSIC: The Octopus Project “Rorol” from ‘Identification Parade’ (Peek-A-Boo – 2002)]
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