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by Congressman Richard Pombo

Wednesday, September 2, 1998
CONTACT:  Mike Hardiman
(202) 225-1947

With apologies to Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, I will now lead you through a modern day fairy tale about the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It begins like this:

"Babbitt announces new policy, plans to ‘delist’ endangered species," proclaimed a Department of Interior press release on May 6, 1998. "In the near future, many species will be flying, splashing and leaping off the list. They made it. They are graduating. They’re coming back to their native American soil, water and wind," claimed Bruce ‘The Mad Hatter’ Babbitt.

Tell that to the Mariana mallard, one of the ‘success stories’ proposed for delisting. It will not be flying, splashing or leaping any time soon. That’s because it is extinct! Ditto for the Guam broadbill and three species of the Oahu tree snail. They have all successfully "graduated" off the endangered species list, and into extinction!

And the ESA fairy tale only gets "Curiouser and curiouser!" as Alice would say as she wandered through Wonderland.

Many other species proposed for removal from the list are not success stories either. Several such as the Truckee barberry are being delisted as a result of taxonomic error. This means that it was initially identified as a unique species, different than any other plant, when actually it is not unique, and should have not been listed in the first place. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a division of Mad Hatter Babbitt’s Interior Department, has acknowledged this, and agreed to propose delisting.

There are several more so-called successes proposed for removal because of data error, such as the dismal swamp shrew. This species was severely undercounted when it was listed, and is actually much more plentiful than previously thought. USFWS is proposing several delistings on this basis as well.

The peregrine falcon’s recovery was initially hindered by bureaucratic bungling at the USFWS. In their August 25, 1998 announcement delisting the falcon, the Service heaped praise on itself, claiming that it’s "recovery program is unprecedented in the world and in the history of endangered species conservation." This is a farce.

After elimination of the pesticide DDT in 1972, the falcon’s situation improved. Recovery was enhanced by breeding while in captivity, and then controlled release of birds into the wild. Captive breeding is discouraged under the ESA, and for several years USFWS discredited this method of saving the falcon. Congress finally stepped in and demanded that USFWS cooperate with the private sector foundations that deserve the credit for recovering the falcon.

The bald eagle, our national symbol, is another example of claiming credit where none is due. Once nearly extinct, the eagle has recovered dramatically since the elimination of DDT in 1972, and also recovered due to prohibitions that were placed on hunting. In addition, legislation specific to the bald eagle already protects it regardless of the ESA. The May 6 ‘success story’ announcement was held near a bald eagle nesting site in western Massachusetts. It claimed to show how government enforcement of the ESA is saving our national symbol. Actually, it served as a prime example of non-ESA factors leading to recovery of a species. The nest location is NOT a USFWS wildlife refuge or a government owned wilderness. It is on private property owned by a utility company, adjacent to a privately operated campground and canoe rental recreation area!

Overall, of the 34 species the Mad Hatter claimed as "proof that the act works," five are extinct, twelve listings were based on inaccurate information, and three other species recovered because of the ban on DDT. The rest improved because of actions initiated before the ESA was law or because of actions taken independently of the ESA by state and local government, private property owners and private foundations, for example.

The Mad Hatter’s henchmen have not responded well to this distressing news. Like Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, they have shouted "Off with their heads!" to anyone questioning their version of events. "It’s their own spin" says one henchman, while another points a finger within the department and claims "a biologist error." This is apparently how scientific peer review and sound science work at the Department of Interior. When press flacks make a mistake, blame it on the biologists!

I appreciate the department cleaning up the endangered and threatened species list. It is understandable that after twenty-five years and 1,138 listed species, there will be a few mistakes made. Species will be removed from the list for reasons other than recovery, such as the Truckee barberry. They will also recover from factors not related to the ESA, such as the bald eagle.

However, failures should not be claimed as successes. Secretary Babbitt is struggling to find even one species that has been legitimately saved by the ESA.

Secretary Babbitt claimed that "We can now finally prove one thing conclusively: The Endangered Species Act works (emphasis in original). Period." Yet after twenty-five years and 1,138 listed species, the best he can come up with is a list of extinctions, mistakes, exaggerations and false claims. Perhaps the Eaglet in Wonderland said it best when he told the Dodo bird, "Speak English! I don’t know the meaning of half of those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you either!"

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