Monday, January 05, 2004


Pete McCloskey, the kind of Republican I used to vote for, hit the nail on the head recently in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times [free registration required]:
Republicans Are at Risk of Becoming an Endangered Species

What's particularly on-target is that McCloskey calls out the Bush administration's stealth campaign against the Endangered Species Act:
The administration has stopped designating "critical habitat" for listed species except under court order. It has stopped adding to the list of threatened and endangered species unless ordered to do so by a judge. It has moved to exempt the Forest Service from abiding by the law on the pretext of fire prevention. It is working to weaken the requirement that endangered species be protected from pesticides.

And that list barely scratches the surface. The assault on the law is widespread and relentless.

The administration and its comrades in arms argue that the law is ineffective, expensive and in need of drastic overhaul. In truth, they are acting as agents for the timber industry, the mining industry, land developers, big agriculture and other economic interests that sometimes find their profits slightly decreased in the short run by the need to obey this law.

This last point is important to stress, because conservatives and business interests constantly stress the jobs that will be lost to species protection. Yet the ESA was an explicit recognition that the long-term national interest is best served by restraining such short-term demand (and utlimately real shortsightedness).

This is not the only front in which the Bush administration is behaving outrageously on the environmental front, with consequences directly affecting the Pacific Northwest. There is, of course, his "Healthy Forests Initiative," which promises to achieve the spectacularly anti-logical result of making old-growth forests less prone to fires by clearcutting them (you see, they call them "old growth" precisely because they are wet forests that rarely have fires). Or his recent bulldozing of Clinton's roadless-area initiative. Most recently, it's become apparent that the administration is about to reignite the Northwest timber wars, with of course the predictable political calculation thrown in for good measure:
"It's an ugly Christmas and early New Year's list out there that seems to be on the horizon from the Bush administration, and I doubt that I know of everything that's on deck," said Bill Arthur, the Sierra Club's Seattle-based deputy national field director.

"It's our sense that the Bush administration, knowing that 2004 is upon them, is trying to get as many things out the door as they can to weaken the environmental agenda, but buy some distance in time between when they do the deed and Nov. 2," Election Day.

But as I've discussed previously, the real test of the administration's assault on the ESA may come down to a subject obviously dear to my heart: namely, the fate of the Puget Sound's resident orcas.

The recent court ruling slapping down the administration's attempts to prevent the J, K, and L pods from being being listed as a threatened species under the ESA were especially important, if for no other reason than that the government's case was so outrageously flawed.

I attended a community forum about listing the whales three years ago on San Juan Island, organized by local researchers and activists. A biologist from National Marine Fisheries Service was in attendance too and I talked with him for awhile. He seemed very sympathetic to the problem and was reeasonably encouraging, though cautious of course.

That was then, under a different administration. The now, as the Earthjustice lawyers who won the recent ruling described was this:
In response to the dramatic decline of the Southern Residents, the Center for Biological Diversity and 11 co-petitioners filed a petition to list the this orca group under the ESA on May 1, 2001. The Fisheries service reviewed the petition and on July 1, 2002, determined that this population of orcas was indeed a discrete population. NOAA Fisheries also found that they were in danger of extinction. However, the agency determined that the whales didn’t meet a third criterion – that the whales are “significant.”

The plaintiffs argued that this imperiled population of orcas is distinct both genetically and geographically and has been for thousands of years. Yet, NOAA Fisheries claimed that the Southern Residents were insignificant by ignoring this genetic distinctiveness; refusing to consider their unique language, family histories, and foraging patterns; and concluding that other orcas would recolonize Puget Sound if the Southern Residents are extirpated – even though the last time that occurred was after the last Ice Age. This logic flew in the face of 30 years of studies done on the Southern Residents, which now are the most studied and best-known marine mammal population in the world.

In lieu of listing the Southern Resident Community of orcas under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries announced last summer that they would go the route of designating the population as a “depleted stock” under a different statute, the Marine Mammal Protection Act. While this was seen as a step in the right direction, environmentalists argued that the depleted tack taken by the agency short-changed the Southern Residents critical protections, inadequately addressing the threats facing the whales and their habitat.

“The ‘depleted’ designation is only useful to address threats such as unsustainable harvest levels and fishery bycatch. But we know that neither of these threats are impacting the Southern Residents,” said Brent Plater of the Center for Biological Diversity. “NOAA Fisheries was using this as a way to deflect attention from its inaction on salmon declines and the risks of a catastrophic oil spill, which even their own scientists agree is the most immediate threat to the long-term survival of these whales.”

The reality is that, in the big scheme of things, orcas are a true indicator species (unlike, say, the spotted owl) because they reside atop the food chain. They are typically a highly opportunistic species capable of adapting to a broad range of conditions; when they become troubled -- and at this point, it is now an open question whether the Sound's orca population is any longer sustainable genetically speaking -- that is a real warning bell for the health of the entire ecosystem. [For more on the bigger picture of this, I can't recommend enough the P-I's recent award-winning series, Our Troubled Sound.]

The ESA, incidentally, recently turned 30 years old. Unfortunately, it is now itself endangered. Not overtly, of course. That would draw too much negative press. What's happening is that it is being systematically gutted so that it becomes a hollow law.

I wish McCloskey were right about the political ramifications for Republicans -- but hardly anyone in the press is paying any attention to this. Certainly none of the Kewl Kids have noticed. But then, why would they?

[McCloskey link via Kicking Ass.]

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