Babbitt Sets Plan to Pare Endangered Species List:
Protected Status Aided Recoveries

By Joby Warrick
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post
May 6, 1998

The Clinton administration will announce plans today to remove dozens of once-rare creatures from the government's official "endangered" list, declaring victory in staving off extinction for such powerful symbols as the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle.

From the fearsome gray wolf to the obscure Missouri bladder-pod, a total of 29 formerly threatened animals and plants are likely to be declared fully or partly recovered within two years in what officials describe as the biggest such "de-listing" since the Endangered Species Act was adopted 25 years ago.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will announce the move as part of a new policy that emphasizes removing threatened creatures from protective status once recovery is assured. The policy is intended in part to blunt criticism from congressional opponents who complain that endangered-species laws don't work.

"In the near future, many species will be flying, splashing and leaping off the list," Babbitt said. "They made it. They're graduating."

More than 1,130 animals and plants are listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered or threatened, making it illegal to kill or harm them. Over the years, only a handful of species have been removed. Some, like California's Tacopa pupfish or Florida's Dusky seaside sparrow, were dropped only after they became extinct.

But others have rapidly recovered under federal protection, and Babbitt argued that they should be removed from the list to free up funds for other projects.

"There's a genuine savings once you get these creatures off the list," he said in a briefing with reporters. "The federal monitors can pack up and go home."

The 29 species cited by Babbitt have made solid recoveries and would top the list of creatures to be declared fully recovered or moved to a less-protective status following a months-long process of formal review.

Some of the recoveries have been widely chronicled. Both the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle were pushed to the brink of extinction by the use of DDT and other pesticides that caused reproduction rates to plummet. Today, there are more than 1,500 nesting pairs of falcons -- including at least one in downtown Washington -- and the bald eagle population is increasing at a rate of about 10 percent a year. Bald eagles were reclassified from officially "endangered" to "threatened" in 1995.

While the two birds have become symbols of the recovery effort, Babbitt's list of success stories also includes lesser-known animals and plants that he calls "just as ecologically significant. . . . I don't know what a Missouri bladder-pod is but I'm pleased that it's ready for consideration," he said of the midwestern plant.

News of Babbitt's decision was generally welcomed by environmentalists, who said the proposed "de-listings" were a vindication of the Endangered Species Act. "These species are genuine success stories," said Christopher E. Williams, policy analyst for the World Wildlife Fund.

But others saw the timing of Babbitt's announcement as political, coming as Congress is weighing competing proposals for reforming the act, which expired in 1992. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho), author of one of the bills, noted that the recovering species on Babbitt's list "didn't all reach that point together."

"Five years ago people were saying it's time to de-list the bald eagle," Kempthorne said. "This underscores the fact that there is no mechanism in place for scientific de-listings."

Back From the Brink

Once threatened with extinction, these animals and plants are top candidates for removal from the government's "endangered" list :

Bald eagle: The national symbol's numbers have increased tenfold since the 1960s and are now growing at a rate of 10 percent each year.

Gray wolf: Expected to be taken off list soon in western Great Lakes, and in 2002 in Rocky Mountains.

Peregrine falcon: Population increased after restrictions on DDT and release of falcons reared in captivity. Expected to be taken off list this year.

Columbian white-tailed deer: Recovered from a population of only 500 two decades ago. May be removed from list in some regions next year.

Aleutian Canada goose: Limited to a single island in 1967, the goose has thrived because of restrictions on hunting and protections for its California wintering grounds.

Virginia northern flying squirrel: After development, pollution and pests damaged forest habitat, population has bounced back. Service plans to reclassify as threatened.

Other species: Three plants -- Robbin's cinquefoil, Missouri bladder-pod and running buffalo clover -- will likely be reclassified. Four plant and animal species in the Mojave Desert's Meadows National Wildlife Refuge might be taken off list.

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