Back in 1970, a deer hunter roaming the scrappy mountains of southwest Texas killed America's last Mexican gray wolf. Ranchers likely cheered, as did federal gunslingers laboring under archaic predator control laws. Still, within a mere six years, the wolves would land on the federal list of endangered species. And soon after, five remaining grays from Mexico were trundled into the United States.
A slow, contentious recovery process had begun.
Today, up to 50 Mexican gray wolves are thought to rove the remote mountains of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. But the very law that rescued them from oblivion is now in the crosshairs of right-wing Republicans, at least one Democratic straggler and a profoundly anti-environmental White House. As a result, more than three decades after it was established with sweeping bipartisan support, the Endangered Species Act is facing an unprecedented wave of legislative and inter-agency assaults.
Various measures aiming to gut the law have been introduced by Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California and by Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, a Republican representing the conservative eastern fringes of metro Phoenix. But the ESA's largest threat has come from Rep. Richard Pombo, whose district lies near California's heavily agricultural Central Valley region. A zealous property-rights crusader who now chairs the House Committee on Resources, Pombo is drafting legislation to diminish the ESA's critical habitat protections.
To Congressman Raúl Grijalva, it's a perfect political storm. The ESA "has always been a bane to the extreme right wing," says the Democrat who represents Southern Arizona. "Unfortunately, that hard-right leadership, including Chairman Pombo, sees the Endangered Species Act as the top target in their environmental agenda."
But to Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Rep. Pombo, the current flurry simply reveals that the ESA isn't working. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data shows that "a number of species currently on the (endangered) list are believed to be extinct," he says. "Somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 percent of the listed species are classified by the Fish and Wildlife Service either as in decline or in an unknown status."
Attempts to verify those claims with FWS officials by press time were unsuccessful. However, the agency's "Endangered Species Recovery Program" Web page paints a far different picture. "Of all the species listed between 1968 and 2000," it says, "only 7--or less than 1 percent--have been recognized as extinct, and subsequently removed from the list. The fact that almost 99 percent of listed species have not been lost speaks to the success of the ESA as a mechanism for conservation of species that are at risk of extinction."
Indeed, most federal programs with those kinds of numbers would be considered stunning successes. Even here in Arizona, no less than 70 species--from the border jaguar to the pygmy owl--enjoy legal sanctuary under the act. Still, assaults on the law have only grown. Nor are they limited to Congress: According to a recent survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, 44 percent of agency staffers working with endangered species report having "been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making jeopardy or other findings that are protective of species."
Grijalva is ranking Democrat on the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee of the House Committee on Resources, where he's witnessing "an orchestrated effort" to weaken or eliminate the act. "Every hearing we've been having has to do with the Endangered Species Act, how it's hurting oil production, keeping us from getting oil shale in Colorado, how it's keeping us from exploring public lands," he says. "Other committees are having similar meetings."
But he says problems with the Endangered Species Act have more to do with funding skullduggery than anything else. "Since Bush got in, agencies that enforce the ESA have been resource-starved. They have less personnel, less time to review cases, so things pile up. Then (ESA opponents) proceed with complaints" from frustrated business and landowners.
This dynamic has also prompted a barrage of litigation, says Scotty Johnson, outreach representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson. "Lawsuits have always been a last resort. We don't like to sue--we like to open cages for critters that have nearly been extinct. But the environmental community itself has been pushed into lawsuits by an ineffectual recovery process where sometimes there isn't the will or the necessary resources" to follow ESA mandates.
For example, he points to litigation in the mid-1990s forcing the FWS to finally recognize jaguars along the Arizona-Mexico border as endangered. And it was only after another suit by Defenders and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity in 2003 that the agency actually pledged to consider critical habitat and a recovery plan for the big cat--all required by the ESA.
Regardless, opponents of the act are smelling blood, says Grijalva. "They believe there's a wane in environmental consciousness and support among the American public. But I think they're wrong. I think the ESA has a great deal of support."
The numbers bear him out. According to recent survey by the Biodiversity Project in Madison, Wis., 65 percent of respondents feel that Americans bear a moral responsibility to protect wildlife, and 63 percent say economic concerns don't negate that obligation. A full 78 percent believe the ESA should remain strong.
But in Congress, the mood is tougher to gauge. Arizona Republican Senators John McCain and John Kyl didn't return phone calls seeking comment. Still, there are clues: While McCain received a 67 approval rating from the League of Conservation Voters in 2004, Kyl scored a resounding 0.
In the House, Southern Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican, argues that changes are needed. "The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is worthy--to conserve and protect species of plant and wildlife that are threatened with extinction," he writes in an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly. "But I am convinced the Act needs a substantial revision. Listing and recovery efforts need to be based on sound science and research--not unreliable data and assumptions. The current law needs more balance in this direction."
Where does that balance lie? No one's sure at this point, as Pombo plays close-to-the-vest with his bill. Grijalva fears he'll continue doing so--and then try to steam-roll it through the Republican-controlled House. In response, Grijalva joined several Democratic members of the House Committee on Resources in urging Pombo to avoid stifling committee debate. "The Endangered Species Act is one of the most important national conservation laws," said the group's July 1 letter, "with broad environmental and economic impacts, and, thus, one of the most significant laws under our Committee's jurisdiction. Therefore, specific legislative changes to that law must be the subject of thorough scrutiny before any committee action, let alone floor consideration.
"To that end, we also hope you will make your legislative proposal publicly available at the earliest possible date," the letter said. "The public deserves the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the policy process."