Endangered No More?

Declaring that the Endangered Species Act works, the administration says two dozen birds, plants and animals, including the bald eagle, are on their way to recovery and may soon be removed from the law's protection.
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The proposal announced Tuesday by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt marks the first time in the law's 25-year history that such a large number of species would be earmarked for removal from the endangered list, although it would be done over two years.

Babbitt is scheduled to trumpet the proposed removal of such species as the Peregrine falcon, the bald eagle, the Eastern timber wolf and the Aleutian Canada goose in a speech at a wildlife refuge in Massachusetts Wednesday.

"For the first time we can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Babbitt says. "We can now prove one thing conclusively. The Endangered Species Act works. Period."

Critics of the 1973 law claim it has caused widespread economic harm to landowners and has shown little evidence of protecting species. Overthe last quarter century, only a handful have recovered enough to be left on their own.

There are 1,135 species on the list.

Babbitt, speaking to reporters Tuesday, acknowledged that efforts to get species off the list have lagged, but he said that's in part because "we've had to dig our way out from under" a backlog of species awaiting to be listed. That backlog grew when Congress imposed a yearlong moratorium on new listings in 1995.

Since the moratorium ended in April 1996, the backlog of species awaiting a final listing decision has dwindled to about 100. The Fish and Wildlife Service is putting new priority on unlisting some of the plants that have shown significant signs of recovery.

The Interior Department announced 29 species, including animals, fish, reptiles, birds and plants, that have recovered enough to be seriously considered for removal from the endangered list. Some of the species will be downgraded to threatened and others removed from the law's protection altogether, although states may still regulate them.

The 29 include such well-known species as the Peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and Michigan timber wolf- all of which have made widely publicized comebacks in recent years. And there are obscure plants such as the Missouri bladder-pod; the Hoover's wooly-star, which is found mostly on federal land in California; and the Tinian monarch, a bird found only on a Pacific island in the Northern Mariana chain.

"It is an unprecedented action. They've never before put together such a list of species," said James Waltman of the Wilderness Society. But he also said the environmental community intendto examine the list closely to make sure the species have recovered sufficiently.

"It's a concern that politics not drive the process," said Mike Senatore of Defenders of Wildlife.

Some species are expected to be taken off the list in certain parts of the country, but kept on elsewhere.

Since the American alligator was the first to be removed from the endangered-species list in the late 1970s, only six other species have recovered enough to be taken off the list entirely. Another 14 species were removed after they either disappeared or new information was uncovered indicating they never should have been put on the list in the first place.

Michael Bean, an endangered-species expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, said while some species clearly "have made dramatic rebounds" and appear ready to be taken off the list, Babbitt's announcement also has it political overtones.

"The secretary wants to blunt the criticism from Congress and other quarters. ... [He] ultimately knows for the public to continue to view the endangered-species conservation effort favorably it really has to work," said Bean.

"Our new policy to emphasize delisting could alter the terms of debate," agrees Babbitt.

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