Sunday, April 02, 2006

House bill endangers Endangered Species Act


Montana is rich in land and wildlife. Its natural heritage is something to be proud of. Whether you like to hunt, hike, camp, bike, or you just like being in the great outdoors, Montana has something to offer. The state is home to one of the greatest varieties of wildlife and can boast of having two of our nation's most diverse and thriving ecosystems -- Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. These are the things that make up Montana's natural heritage. And they are worth protecting.

Every state in the union has a natural heritage of its own that makes its citizens proud. That's why more than 30 years ago America led the world in passing some of the most effective conservation laws ever written, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and to protect wildlife from going extinct, the Endangered Species Act.

Eagles, falcons rebound

But recently the U.S. House passed a bill that would devastate the protections of the ESA and undermine our commitment to conserve and protect our nation's threatened wildlife. If this bill becomes law, it would be a debilitating setback for a country that has led the world in establishing a conservation ethic that for more than 30 years has helped prevent the extinction of our wildlife treasures.

As a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I saw firsthand the great strides we made in wildlife conservation thanks to the ESA. During that time wolves returned to the wilds of Yellowstone and the Southwest; peregrine falcons recovered to the point where they could be removed from the endangered species list; bald eagles rebounded in every state; and a captive breeding program for condors was set up that today has resulted in the first condor chicks born in the wild in nearly 20 years.

The Endangered Species Act is not just a law; it is a tool that encourages individuals to play a key role in the recovery of plants and animals. In Montana, bird watchers have gathered for three decades to join in on community bird counts to assess bald eagle numbers. Thanks to local conservation efforts, their data shows that the population has increased from a mere 40 to some 756 bald eagles today. Grizzly bears have also made a comeback in the state thanks to a concerted effort by the federal and state agencies to reduce the number of conflicts between bears and humans and extensive efforts to protect important grizzly habitat on private and public lands.

Thanks to the act, only nine out of 1,800 listed plants and animals have gone extinct in the past 30 years; yet all these species were headed toward extinction before they were listed.

Exempting pesticides

If the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Richard Pombo of California, becomes law, all that progress would come to a grinding halt. The bill decimates the ESA's ability to protect and conserve habitat needed for the recovery of threatened or endangered plants and animals. It cuts wildlife experts out of the loop when determining whether new projects would harm endangered animals and plants. More egregious still, it sets a dangerous precedent by requiring taxpayers to pay developers not to kill or injure endangered species. And in a final blow, the bill exempts all pesticide decisions from compliance with the Endangered Species Act for at least the next five years. That means pesticides could be used no matter how much they might harm wildlife. If this bill becomes law, success stories like the bald eagle and grizzly bear will be a distant memory.

There is still a chance to save the Endangered Species Act. The Senate is in the midst of taking up this debate. One can only hope that they will take their responsibility to be good stewards of our nation's wildlife seriously. If they don't, our children will pay the ultimate price. The act was passed to make sure that the world we leave our children is at least as healthy, diverse, and rich as the one we enjoy today, a worthy cause if there ever was one.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, is a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She writes from Washington, D.C.

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