Former AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Cite Threat to Endangered Species Act

A recent congressional rider that removed federal protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains has set a precedent that could encourage lawmakers to weaken protections for other species, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said at AAAS.

Sylvia Fallon, now with NRDC’s Wildlife Conservation Project, said it is too early to say whether the rider involving wolves was an aberration or the start of a more activist role by Congress to directly intervene in the administration of the Endangered Species Act.

Still, “we’ll continue to see other bills come forward to weaken protections for species,” predicted the former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. She argued that the disagreements over the scope of protections for the gray wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming could have been resolved in the courts—where litigation had been pending—or in settlement talks by the parties involved rather than by congressional intervention.

A gray wolf (canis lupus)

A gray wolf (canis lupus)

Fallon spoke at a 24 May seminar hosted by the AAAS Science & Technology Fellowships. Since it was founded in 1973, the program has sent more than 2300 scientists and engineers to work for a year or two in Congress and nearly 20 executive branch agencies and departments. Scores have stayed on to build high-impact careers in government, while others have gone on to leadership positions in education, private enterprise, and non-governmental organizations.

The rider on the gray wolves was attached 15 April to a must-pass federal budget bill by U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) and U.S. Representative Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). It marked the first time an animal or plant has been removed from the endangered species list by Congress. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in complying with the rider, published a rule that removes Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Idaho, Montana, eastern Oregon and Washington, and northern Utah. The animals will be managed instead by state wildlife agencies. The protections will remain in effect in Wyoming until state officials develop an acceptable plan for managing the wolves.

Several dozen wolves were re-introduced into the northern Rockies in 1995 and 1996 amid considerable opposition from local ranchers who feared livestock losses and hunters concerned about elk losses. According to Fallon, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) set a target of having a total of 300 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming—100 in each state. Fallon said the numbers were based on estimates considered socially acceptable rather than any scientific assessment of the carrying capacity for the region. The science of conservation biology was still in its infancy at the time, she said.

Sylvia Fallon

Sylvia Fallon

By 2005, there were 1500 wolves in the region and the states were pushing to have the animals removed from the endangered species list. In Idaho, there are currently between 800 and 900, Fallon said, but the original recovery goals mean that the state only needs to maintain 100 of them.

In 2009, after first proposing a general de-listing of the gray wolves in the northern Rockies, the FWS issued a rule that instead de-listed them in Montana and Idaho but left federal protections in place in Wyoming. Conservation groups went to court against the rule, arguing that it unlawfully split the wolf population along political boundaries. In August 2010, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy agreed and struck down the rule.

But as it became clear that local officials and lawmakers were determined to pressure Congress into overriding Molloy’s decision, Fallon said, 10 out of 14 conservation groups reached a proposed settlement with FWS, Montana, and Idaho that would preclude legislative action. It would have allowed Montana and Idaho to manage their wolf populations while also setting up an independent scientific review panel to oversee the process. Molloy rejected the settlement, however, in part because not all of the groups embraced it.

Tester and Simpson pressed ahead with the rider. In the end, Congress essentially ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to do what it had originally intended to do—remove wolves from the endangered species list in two states and keep them on the list for in Wyoming.

But the congressional intervention has raised serious concerns among advocates for the Endangered Species Act. “It’s a huge precedent,” Fallon said.

Several groups are challenging the rider on constitutional grounds, saying that Congress violated the principle of separation of powers by inserting itself into the legal case brought by conservation groups against the 2009 rule.

Although the Endangered Species Act passed Congress in 1973 with overwhelming support (a 92-0 vote in the Senate, a 390-12 vote in the House), it has been the subject of much legal wrangling over the years as advocates and opponents battle over the scope of the act and its potential economic impacts.

Joe Roman

Joe Roman

Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont and a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency from 2005 to 2007, discussed the history and current status of the act, citing some notable cases of species saved and lost as described in his new book, “Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act” (Harvard University Press, May 2011).

There remains a compelling case for enforcement of the act, Roman said, including the fact that endangered species often are surrogates for declining ecosystems. Protecting rare species can have beneficial impacts, he said, such as the restoration of willows in Yellowstone National Park after wolves reduced the number of elk grazing on riverside trees.

Roman was in Washington in 2006, when the act was under attack by members of Congress who questioned whether it was working. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported at the time that 10% of the species protected by the act were improving, 33% were stable, 33% were declining, and the status was unknown for 25%.

While pessimists noted that only 1 in 10 of the listed species were improving, Roman said, it also was true that most of the species with known status were either stable or improving. Among the species that have been helped are the American alligator (declared “recovered” in 1987), the peregrine falcon (de-listed in 1999) and the brown pelican (de-listed in 2009).

Roman also cited an academic study which looked at the Endangered Species Act 30 years after passage. It projected that 262 U.S. species would have disappeared between 1973 and 2003 had the act not passed.

Despite its successes, there are some continuing problems with the act, Roman said, notably the number of species that merit protection but have not been listed due to a lack of resources. There are 251 species on the “warranted but precluded” list, and Roman said court challenges are underway to reduce the number of waitlisted species.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation organization, says that at least 24 species, including the Guam cardinal honey-eater (a bird) and the Hawaiian four-angled pelea (a plant) have gone extinct while on the candidate list. The Endangered Species Act will only be effective, Roman said, if it protects all deserving species.

Earl Lane

6 June 2011