Babbitt’s Credibility in Question After Exaggerated ESA Claims

Published June 1, 1998

With his widely reported May 5 announcement that he was removing 33 species of flora and fauna from the endangered species list, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt no doubt hoped to defuse the raging controversy surrounding how the federal government addresses the problem of threatened and endangered plants and animals.

But by fudging the facts and employing smoke-and mirror tactics that would do honor to even the most accomplished flim-flam artist, Secretary Babbitt succeeded only in further undermining the already shaky foundations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Key to Babbitt’s rhetorical sleight of hand was his use of the word “delisting,” the removal of a species from the Fish & Wildlife Service’s official list of threatened or endangered species.

“Our new policy to emphasize delisting,” he proudly proclaimed, “could alter the terms of debate over the future of the landmark 1973 conservation law. For we can now finally prove one thing conclusively: The Endangered Species Act works. Period.”

If plants and animals are being removed from the endangered species list, the interior secretary’s logic goes, then this is happening as a result of the ESA’s vaunted recovery efforts. With rare exception, that is exactly how the story was reported in the press. But for those who bothered to look past the spin, Babbitt’s triumphant pronouncements turned out to be little more than fabrications.

One of those scrutinizing Babbitt’s list was Brian Seasholes of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). His research belies Babbitt’s claims. Here’s what he found:

Extinction. If a species has already become extinct, it certainly doesn’t belong on the endangered species list. It turns out that five of the species Babbitt delisted are already extinct, something that could hardly be trumpeted as a success for the ESA.

Data Error. “Data error” is Washingtonese for “we screwed up.” Some plants and animals made their way onto the endangered species list as a result of “data error,” and were never endangered in the first place. In other cases, scientific research on the species’ taxonomy has revealed that the listed species was not genetically different from a more common species.

Developing more accurate data does not mean the ESA works. No fewer than 12 species delisted by Babbitt–among them the running buffalo clover, Missouri bladder-pod, Virginia northern flying squirrel, and the Truckee barberry–were on the list as a result of data error.

Erroneously on List. The Pahrump poolfish appears on Babbitt’s list. But, in something of an embarrassment for the interior secretary, his own FWS wants to keep this creature on the list until it has fully recovered.

DDT. The banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972, not the passage of the ESA one year later, was the major factor in the resurgence of several species of birds, including the American peregrine falcon and the brown pelican.

Federal Lands. Ten species delisted by Babbitt exist solely on federal lands. As such, they are subject to federal land-use restrictions that do not apply to private property. Those restrictions, and not the ESA, have, for example, allowed such rare species as the Three Ash Meadows plants and Eureka Valley plants to remain viable. In the case of the Aleutian Canada goose, fox eradication efforts by the FWS, not the ESA, led to recovery.

State Conservation Efforts. The Loch Lomond Coyote thistle recovered as a result of the purchase of just under 12 acres of land by the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG). A few thousand dollars was chipped in by the FWS for a fence around the land. Later vandalized, the fence was repaired with CDFG funds.

Federal and State Conservation Efforts. While the ESA’s prohibition on killing (save for exceptional cases) has contributed to the gray wolf’s recovery, the ESA’s prohibition on habitat modification on private land has had no effect on the predator’s rebound. Efforts by Minnesota state officials to increase the deer population for hunters have also benefitted the wolf.

Babbitt’s list of 33 delisted species is every bit as fraudulent as his claim that the ESA “works.” By pitting landowners against species, the ESA works only for those who want to control the former in the name of protecting the latter.