National Wilderness Institute Disputes Babbitt’s Claims of ESA Success

National Wilderness Institute Disputes Babbitt’s Claims of ESA Success

US Fish and Wildlife Service issues correction

By: Staff  Date: 01/13/2012 Category: | Wildlife Journal |

Last May, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stood in front of an eagle's nest and pronounced the US Endangered Species Act a success. His proof? Thirty-four species that were proposed for downlisting or removal from the endangered list over the next several years.

But Rob Gordon of the National Wilderness Institute disputed the list and 30 congressmen from western states asked the secretary to issue a revised statement.

In a letter to Babbitt dated July 17, Gordon said that five of the species on the list are believed to be extinct, not recovered; four species on the list are no longer considered taxonomically valid; and the data that was relied upon in adding at least nine others to the endangered species list turned out to be erroneous.

"Although extinction and data errors are appropriate reasons to remove species from the threatened and endangered list, it is not accurate to call them recoveries or to use them as evidence of the Act's successfulness. Indeed, they could more appropriately be used as evidence of the Endangered Species Act's shortcomings."

Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said the list was released by "unfortunate error" discovered by a staff biologist the same day the list was released.

"We took immediate steps to contact as many press outlets as possible with corrected information," Clark said in her letter to the congressmen on August 14, more than three months after Babbitt's pres conference and nearly a month after NWI asked babbitt for an explanation.

According to Clark, the mistake resulted when an internal memo that did not specify the reasons for removing the species from the endangered list was given to the agency's public relations department and then made its way to Babbitt for his photo opportunity. Clark said that Babbitt did not know that many of the species on the list were extinct or being recommended for removal for reasons other than recovery.

Although Clark eventually responded to the charge that the public had been misled, the initial response of the Interior Department had been to accuse NWI of misrepresenting the facts.


Western Caucus letter

On August 11, the Western Caucus, 30 members of the US Congress, wrote to Babbitt and asked that he retract his "misleading announcement of May 6" and issue a correction that accurately reflects the reasons for removing these species from the endangered list.

"While extinction, taxonomic error and data error are all good reasons to delist a species, they hardly prove that the Endangered Species Act works," the caucus wrote. "Even for those species whose situation has improved, it cannot automatically be assumed that the Endangered Species Act is the sole or even the primary reason for their recovery. Other factors, such as the ban on DDT, have been a more significant recovery tool than the ESA. Furthermore, even if any of the species you have identified for downlisting or delisting deserve a reclassification based purely upon biological considerations, your agency hasn't even begun the process necessary to achieve the intended results - further proof that your words have not been followed up by any action. More importantly, your actions undermine the bipartisan effort for much needed reform of the Act, an action that even you have supported."


NWI petitions

Following a study of the ESA using data supplied by the Interior Department, the National Wilderness Institute petitioned for removal of several species from the ESA because they were extinct or because they were erroneously placed on the list in the first place. Four of the species on Babbitt's list - the Tinian monarch (a bird), the Hawaiian owl, the island night lizard, and the Truckee barberry (a plant) - were among those petitioned by NWI for removal because of data error.

Along with the five extinct species on the "success" list, four species are now considered natural variants or hybrids and are recommended for removal because of taxonomic error; 10 species are recommended for dropping because of original data error (the numbers were underestimated); and 15 species are recommended for deletion because they are no longer considered endangered or threatened, but their recovery is attributed to activities ranging from management to hunting restrictions and including the ban on DDT and restrictions on off-road vehicles.

For more information on the NWI study of the federal Endangered Species Act, contact NWI , PO Box 25766, Washington DC 20007; (703) 836-7404; or visit the NWI website at

Senate Bill 1180

Meanwhile, in spite of an overwhelming 15-3 affirmative vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, S1180, the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, has yet to come to the Senate floor for a vote.

Also known as the Kempthorne bill for its primary sponsor, S1180 requires that species' recovery plans be based on scientific data, not politics, to list animals and write recovery plans; places time limits on the development and implementation of recovery plans; allows more state participation in conservation plans; reduces conflicts between survival plans and economic activities; addresses multiple species in the same habitat; and increases the use of habitat conservation plans, "no surprises" designation, and "safe harbor agreements" to protect private property rights.

The bill has broad bipartisan support, including that of the Clinton Administration, but is opposed by major environmental organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation. NWF recently petitioned FWS to add the prairie dog to the list of threatened species for its role as a keynote species in shortgrass prairie habitat. In its press conference announcing the petition, NWF did not claim that the number of prairie dogs has declined to alarming numbers but rather said that the loss of habitat for the prairie dog threatens other species' survival.

FWS can act on the petition within 90 days as an emergency or can take up to a year to assess the situation. If S1180 is approved before the petition is acted upon, listing of the prairie dog may fall by the wayside under the bill's broader protections for private property.

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All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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