Fish is latest in long line of species spats

By Thomas Hargrove
Albuquerque Tribune Reporter


WASHINGTON - Getting tired, really tired, of all the debate and legal wrangling swirling around the Rio Grande silvery minnow? You're not alone.

The minnow is just the latest of dozens of endangered species throughout America that have frustrated major construction projects, anti-erosion programs for private beachfront property, huge lumbering operations and, in Albuquerque's case, unimpeded access to water during a drought.

"There certainly is a basis for the frustration," said Frank Tymon, a professional writer from rural Lancaster, Calif., who serves on his local water board and has followed the fight over the New Mexico minnow. "After all, I lived in Oregon when the spotted owl started to really bother people in the timber industry."

The Northern Spotted Owl was placed on the endangered species list in 1990, resulting in termination of logging operations on millions of acres of Pacific Northwest forests. "It was an over-reaction on the part of the government and they certainly didn't do themselves or their reputation any good," Tymon said.

The political fight that ensued inspired Tymon to write and publish the poem "Spotted Owl Stew" even though he's not particularly anti-environment:

"If the water's scarce and the country's dry,

And you just might be wondering why,

Them fish gotta have some water too,

So just relax with some Spotted Owl stew."

A number of property rights groups have established Internet Web sites in recent years to suggest that the Endangered Species Act of 1973 has become a classic example of the law of unintended consequences.

"The Endangered Species Act was passed with the best of intentions, to save species of animals and plants from extinction. Unfortunately, it's had little success," said Troy R. Madar, director of the South Dakota-based Abundant Wildlife Society of North America.

Critics charge that of the 1,072 animals on the endangered species list, only 11 have been removed because their populations have been restored. Among the restored species are the peregrine falcon, the Aleutian Canada goose, the American alligator and the eastern Pacific gray whale.

"However, the Endangered Species Act has become a most effective tool in the hands of the preservationist and those intent on destroying the livelihoods of millions of Americans," Madar said. Among the species incidents that critics cite:

One of the first, and perhaps still the most famous, was the fight over the Tennessee Snail Darter that delayed construction of the Tellico Dam along the Little Tennessee River. The dam was eventually finished and the snail darter was relocated.

Maryland land owners were prevented from correcting cliff erosion for their homes overlooking the Chesapeake Bay for fear of harming the endangered Puritan Tiger Beetle, an insect that previously was widely regarded to be a pest.

The University of Arizona had to stop construction of a $240 million telescope on Mount Graham after fears that construction would harm the Mount Graham red squirrel, which critics charge was genetically identical to the common red squirrel.

A $100 million golf course and resort complex was stopped in Oregon over fears that it would destroy a cow pasture used by the rare Oregon silverspot butterfly.

Environmentalists are aware of the criticism that erupts each time a major building project is delayed over concerns for endangered species. It would be a stronger public relations position for construction to be controlled over broader environmental concerns rather than over the fate of the Puritan Tiger Beetle or the Ozark Big-Eared Bat.

"But there is just no other way to do this," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biodiversity. "Our water laws are archaic and completely biased toward development. Our river protection laws are toothless and we don't have any general eco-protection legislation.

"So what we we left with? The Environmental Protection Act."

Suckling said he is aware that people have posted recipes for Spotted Owl stew on the Internet, but such expressions of frustration "are not an indication of an enlightened point of view or a sign of how the public really feels about endangered species."


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