Thursday, March 16, 2006

Endangered Species: In danger of losing protection?

The U.S. Senate may soon consider legislation to change the 33-year-old federal law.


Tony Dean has spent his lifetime on the Dakota prairies chasing game and fish -- deer, geese, pheasants and walleyes -- with guns and fishing rods and cameras. He's made a good living hosting radio and television shows focused on his outdoor adventures, around species that are abundant, thriving and in no danger of going extinct.

So why is a good-old boy from South Dakota worried about rare snakes, minnows, clams and orchids? Why is Dean traveling across the Midwest this month supporting the Endangered Species Act that protects wolves, lynx and plovers -- critters he'll never hunt?

Because, Dean said in a Duluth news conference Wednesday, quoting Aldo Leopold, "you have to save all the parts. All things out there, no matter how insignificant they may seem, are interrelated," Dean said. "We can't lose some of the parts and expect it to work."

It, Dean said, is nature.

Dean spoke as part of a discussion with local members of the Izaak Walton League of America, noting the U.S. House already has passed a "gutted" Endangered Species Act revision and that the Senate could follow any day.

Dean encouraged hunters, anglers and environmentalists to contact U.S. senators to let them know the issue is important. Without the federal act, Dean said, many animals, plants and their habitats will be at risk.

Opponents of the current Endangered Species Act cite horror stories -- how rare minnows blocked dam projects and how spotted owl protections ruined the Pacific Northwest timber industry -- as reasons to reform the 33-year-old act to make it more friendly to developers and property owners.

Moreover, opponents of the act say it hasn't worked well to fully restore many species. Only about 1 percent of listed species have reached recovery.

"Not only have species populations suffered, but the act has cost billions of dollars and deprived landowners of the use of their land," said David Ridenour, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, in a February letter to U.S. senators. The letter was signed by dozens of industry and conservative leaders. "Property owners who have their property taken or who are denied the productive use of it due to federal species recovery efforts deserve 100 percent of the fair market value in compensation for losses."

But Dean says most of those stories are false and that the act does work to help species in need. And he said forcing the government to pay landowners to leave eagles and wolves on their land would bankrupt the government or force the government to let some animals go unprotected.

"Mechanized logging and markets hurt the timber industry jobs, not the owl. But it sounds good to blame the owl," Dean said.

The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, had a simple purpose: Identify animals and plants that are in trouble and then protect them and their habitats so their numbers can be restored to viable population levels.

There are about 1,300 animals and plants now listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An endangered species is in danger of extinction throughout the area in which it is usually found. A threatened species is one that could become endangered in the near future.

Supporters say the act has been a huge success, helping recover depleted populations of alligators, wolves, eagles and more. Alligators recovered so well that they are now off the list. And bald eagles are doing so well they could be off the list soon, too.

Supporters of renewing the act in its current form have overwhelming support from wildlife experts. More than 5,700 scientists with biological expertise, from all 50 states, last week sent a letter to all senators urging them to reauthorize the act in its current form.

"We can't let special interests allow us to lose parts of our outdoors," Dean said. "On the prairie, we annihilated the timber wolf and... coyotes moved in. Then we annihilated coyotes and fox and skunks and raccoons filled the void. Now, we have a problem with waterfowl populations, in part because we have too many small predators. Every piece is important."

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