Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt today proclaimed 29 species once on the brink of extinction--including the bald eagle, gray wolf, and peregrine falcon--healthy enough to be removed from the endangered species list. The move is designed to show congressional critics that the embattled Endangered Species Act (ESA) works and should be renewed. But some ESA opponents and supporters alike are assailing the decision.
Since the ESA was passed in 1973, officials have added 1135 plants and animals to their lists of endangered and threatened species and are currently considering adding 100 more. Once a species has been placed on either list, it cannot be hunted and its habitat garners some protection. But it may take decades to get a species off the list. Indeed, just 27 species have been delisted in 25 years--seven because they went extinct--while a few dozen more have been downgraded from endangered to threatened, a less protective category. To ESA critics, that track record suggests that the law is ineffective and should be weakened or repealed. The act's supporters, however, say it shows that the act must be strengthened to ensure the recovery of more species.
Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wants to boost that tally over the next 2 years by de- or downlisting some high-profile species and a handful of lesser known ones. Many no longer need protection because their populations have rebounded to safe levels, say FWS officials. (Three species being delisted have died out.) Eagle populations in the lower 48 states, for instance, have increased by 10% a year for the past decade, to more than 5000 nesting pairs. To Babbitt, these gains amount to a political victory: The delistings, he said in a statement, "finally prove one thing conclusively: The Endangered Species Act works. Period."
But plans to reduce protection for some species may not withstand scientific scrutiny, says Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder, Colorado, which supports strengthening the ESA. "We doubt that eagle populations, for instance, have recovered enough in all areas to justify complete delisting," he says. Meanwhile, critic Rob Gordon of the Washington-based National Wilderness Institute charges that Babbitt is "disingenuous for calling a 'success' the removal of a species that should never have been put on the list in the first place."