Sunday, June 01, 2008

NEWSWEEK Cover: The Politics of Endangered Species

The June 9, 2008 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, June 2), "The Politics of Endangered Species" explains how environmental activists hope to use the Endangered Species list to fight global warming. Sharon Begley spotlights the less glamorous, but essential species that are in trouble. Plus: why candidates are courting "Low Info" voters; Barack Obama's Friday morning prayer calls and how drone technology has changed warfare and the NIH's new program for studying rare and mysterious diseases.(PRNewsFoto/NEWSWEEK) NEW YORK, NY UNITED STATES 06/01/2008

1 Jun 2008 17:42 Africa/Lagos

NEWSWEEK Cover: The Politics of Endangered Species

Endangered Species Act Being Used as a Political Tool by Both Environmentalists and Bush Administration

Endangered Species Can Help in the Fight Against Global Warming if They Can Make it on the Endangered Species List

NEW YORK, June 1 /PRNewswire/ -- To make it on the Endangered Species list, animals need to be under threat of becoming extinct, but it also takes a good deal of luck. For environmentalists and politicians, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a powerful political tool. Americans almost universally endorse the lofty goal of the act, but conflicts inevitably arise. In the latest installment of Newsweek's "Project Green" series, Senior Editor Jerry Adler looks at what it takes to make it on the list and how the ESA is now being used as part of the war over global warming.

In the June 9 Newsweek cover, "The Politics of Endangered Species" (on newsstands Monday, June 2), Adler reports that the effort to place the polar bear, which recently joined the 1,985 species of plants and animals listed as either "endangered" (in imminent danger of going extinct) or "threatened" (not quite endangered, but heading there), has thrust the ESA into the mainstream of 21st-century environmental politics. It took until 2004 for researchers to demonstrate, with empirically derived climate and population models, that shrinking sea ice was a serious threat to the bears' population. On Feb. 16, 2005 -- the day the Kyoto Protocol to curb greenhouse-gas emissions took effect, without the participation of the United States -- environmental lawyer Kassie Siegel petitioned to list polar bears as endangered. Three years later her efforts met with equivocal success, as Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne -- under court order to make a decision -- designated the bears as "threatened," a significant concession from an administration that has stood almost alone in the world in its reluctance to acknowledge the dangers of climate change.

Polar bears, however, are not safe yet. "Endangered" species get the highest level of protection; anything that threatens their survival -- or, for that matter, a single individual -- is outlawed. By listing the bear as "threatened" instead, Kempthorne gave the department leeway to decide which level of protection to apply. Specifically, he promised not to allow the Endangered Species Act to be "abused" by environmentalists to affect global-warming policy. "This listing," he warned, "will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting." To the Bush administration and to its allies in the business community, it's self-evident that the act was meant to cover the kind of threat a steamroller poses to a Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, not that which an SUV in Atlanta poses to a polar bear, by way of the atmosphere. To Kristina Johnson of the Sierra Club, "it's like the administration has admitted the polar bear to the ER but now is leaving it to die."

Authorities on environmental law say the whole point of the act is to protect critical ecosystems, not just species in isolation. "It's lawful, and Congress was well aware of that when it enacted the law in 1973," says Patrick Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School. "You can't artificially decide what has an effect on the species. If it's being listed because of climate change, you can't turn around and say, 'We're not going to take climate change into account'." Siegel was disappointed, although hardly surprised, by Kempthorne's position. At least in the short term, the main impact of listing the polar bear will be on American hunters who shoot bears in Canada; they will now be prevented from bringing their trophies back into the United States. "I suppose we're doing what they're accusing us of doing," Siegel says, meaning using the polar bear to achieve a broader environmental goal, "but [the administration] just frames it in this weird, misleading way. They oppose regulation on behalf of industries concerned about short-term profits, not about the future of our children and grandchildren and the world they live in."
The accusation about profits might be a sly reference to a former top official of the Interior, deputy assistant secretary Julie MacDonald, who resigned last year one week before Congress opened an investigation of how she handled Endangered Species listings. The resulting report, issued May 21 by the Government Accountability Office, found that she had consistently ruled against positions advocated by Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. According to the report, MacDonald took a particular interest in a petition to list the white-tailed prairie dog, whose habitat in four Western states is also coveted by ranchers, developers and energy companies. The Center for Native Ecosystems presented research indicating that the animal's range has shrunk by 92 percent from its historical extent. Investigators found that MacDonald -- who is not a biologist -- deleted and rewrote portions of the report by Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, reducing the extent of the threat that oil and gas drilling posed to the prairie dog. The report also charged that she pressured staffers to make critical-habitat designations smaller than field biologists had recommended. The GAO report did not accuse her of any illegality; it merely raised strong suspicions that under her watch decisions that were supposed to be made on the science were tainted by politics.

In an accompanying column, Senior Editor Sharon Begley writes that the disappearance of creatures such as the 238 species of spiders, clams, moths, snails, isopods and other invertebrates on the list of endangered species would undoubtedly leave less of a void in our collective heart than the polar bear's but would rip a bigger hole in the web of life. "The value of creepy-crawlies is not reflected in which creatures are protected by the Endangered Species Act," Begley writes. "Like the rest of us, scientists gravitate toward the huggable," and this is a dangerous bias. "Plants and invertebrates are the silent majority which feed the entire planet, stabilize the soil and make all life possible," says Kiernan Suckling, cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity.

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Source: Newsweek
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