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US Endangered Species Act turns 30

December 23, 2003 By John Whitfield This article courtesy of Nature News.

Birthday comes at critical point for US conservation policy.

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One of the world's most important pieces of environmental legislation, the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), is 30 years old this week.

The anniversary finds the ESA as it has been for much of its life: dogged by controversy. The Bush administration has declared the act "broken", a move that environmentalists see as a prelude to dismantling it.

The ESA states that animals have been "rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development". The act gives powers to curb this development - protecting critical habitats and making it illegal to harm endangered species.

The legislation has worked well for charismatic animals such as bears and eagles. But many US politicians believe that act is damaging commercial growth.

The God Squad

Since its creation the ESA has been amended and its powers reduced. In 1978 the US Supreme Court halted construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee - despite US$78 million already having been spent on the project - because the dam threatened the habitat of a small fish, the snail darter.

The issue prompted the creation of the Endangered Species Committee - also known as the God Squad - which has the power to exempt specific sites from the act. The committee found in favour of the snail darter, but the Congress exempted the dam project from the ESA in 1979.

Other amendments have made it legal for landowners to relocate certain endangered animals. And those who own five acres or less cannot be prosecuted for harming endangered species.

"The politics of the ESA have been manipulated so that the sentence [linking growth and extinction] has been totally overlooked," argues Brian Czech, an environmental economist at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg.

"The ESA has worked wonderfully in identifying which species are going down the tubes, but it's been a disappointment overall because it hasn't led the public to come to grips with the conflict between economic growth and species conservation," Czech says.

The cost of conservation

Conservation is also an expensive business - updating the list of endangered species can cost big bucks in legal fees.

The current US administration adds around eight species each year to the thousand-strong list. The past 25 have been added as a result of court orders. Lawsuits are crippling conservation, argues Craig Manson, the US interior department's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

Meeting such legal requirements consumes two-thirds of the budget for listing endangered species. This is set to double in the coming fiscal year, from $6.2 million to $12.3 million. But Gary Frazer, assistant director for endangered species at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates that these programmes need $153 million to meet their obligations.

A range of groups, including congressional Republicans, farmers and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts, are keen to change the ESA, to reduce what they see as its potential for abuse and excessive red tape, which might hamper government activities in other areas.

But environmentalists believe that these groups' real agenda is to downgrade the protection of wildlife. The Bush administration is mounting "an all-out effort to gut the Endangered Species Act", claims Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group in Washington DC.

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