The bald eagle may be soaring back from near-extinction, but hundreds of other imperiled species are foundering, as the federal agency charged with protecting them has sunk into legal, bureaucratic and political turmoil.
The slowdown has resulted in a waiting list of 279 candidates that are near extinction, according to government scientists, from California's Yosemite toad to Puerto Rico's elfin-woods warbler.
Beyond the reluctance to list new species, a bottleneck is weakening efforts to save those already listed. Some 200 of the 1,326 officially endangered species are close to expiring, according to environmental groups, in part because funds have been cut for their recovery.
"It's wonderful the bald eagle is recovering - one of the most charismatic and best funded species ever," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who now works for Defenders of Wildlife, an advocacy group. "But what's happening with the other species? This administration has starved the endangered species' budget. It has dismantled and demoralized its staff."
Bryan Arroyo, acting assistant director of endangered species for the Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledges a 30% vacancy rate in the program's staff, and the fact that the agency's top position has been left unfilled for more than a year.
"We have a national deficit, and we are in the midst of a war," he said. "We have to live within the president's budget."
The Bush administration has added 58 species to the endangered list, 54 of those in response to litigation.
By comparison, 231 mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects and plants were protected by the president's father, George H.W. Bush, during his four years in office.
Since 2000, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budgets for the sorts of interventions that saved the bald eagle - reintroducing breeding pairs, guarding nests and acquiring land - have been slashed by 15% in real dollars. Bush's fiscal 2008 budget calls for an additional 28% in cuts.
Meanwhile, the endangered-species staff is rife with infighting, according to a report last month by the Interior Department's inspector general. And recovery programs, listing decisions and efforts to remove wildlife from existing protections have been heavily influenced by Bush appointees with close ties to industries that have contested the law.
Julie A. MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary of the Interior who oversaw the endangered-species program, resigned last month after the inspector general found that she had ordered scientists to change their findings, and shared internal documents with lobbyists for agricultural and energy interests.
MacDonald, who owns a Sacramento-area ranch with her husband, took a particular interest in California, forcing cutbacks in proposed habitat protection for several listed species, including the Klamath River's bull trout and the Southwestern willow flycatcher, a bird that ranges from New Mexico to Southern California.
Last week, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) announced he would hold hearings on reports by the Washington Post that, in 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney interjected himself into a dispute over Klamath River water flows.
According to the Post, after Cheney objected to the amount of water withheld to preserve fish, it was diverted to irrigation and an estimated 70,000 salmon died, including a small percentage of coho, a species listed as threatened in the region.
"Vice President Cheney turned the science upside down for political reasons," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). "They had to close the fishing season. Taxpayers shelled out $60 million for businesses and boats."
Arroyo declined to discuss allegations of political intervention, but he defended efforts to ease restrictions overall. Endangered species protection "started as a heavy-handed regulatory program," he said. "If you tally the cost of implementing every recovery program now in place, it would cost billions of dollars - and the program will never have that much funding."
The agency has reached out to states, private landowners and conservation groups, Arroyo said. "It is more effective to have 20 or 30 entities pursuing conservation of a species than one federal agency alone."
Three-quarters of endangered species are on private property, and property rights advocates say that overly strict rules give landowners an incentive to "shoot, shovel and shut up" - as the saying goes in the fast-growing West - rather than submit to restrictions on ranching, farming or subdividing.
Arroyo said the best way to prevent that was to work cooperatively, encouraging landowners to voluntarily conserve wildlife through grants and technical assistance.
For instance, Arroyo recalled that when he was a regional official in Texas, he helped teach ranchers to cut back junipers on their land to preserve habitat of the black-capped vireo, an endangered bird.
"We didn't say, 'No cattle ranching,' " he explained.
As for listing fewer species, the focus is on intervening before numbers dwindle, Arroyo said.
"It's not that we don't want to list species. But if I don't have to put it on the list, then I don't have to recover it."
One thing all sides tend to agree on is that the act has become a captive of litigation. Of the 58 species protected under Bush, 54 were listed as a result of lawsuits by environmental groups.
Meanwhile, most litigation seeking to restrict the size of "critical habitat" - land on which imperiled wildlife depends - is brought by timber companies, farm bureaus, housing developers and energy companies.
The Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, an industry-funded group, has brought suit to force a review of whether to delist 194 California species on the grounds that they may have recovered.
To date, the Bush administration has taken 15 species off the endangered list - more than any other administration.
Some were widely applauded, such as the bald eagle, whose removal was announced last week. Others, environmental groups contend, were politically driven, such as California's Sacramento splittail, a Central Valley fish that competes for water with farmers.
"Court orders are the only thing that makes the agency take any action," said Kieran Suckling of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group.
As for the public-private partnerships that Arroyo praises, much of that funding is being diverted to "facilitate massive energy development by conglomerates in Wyoming's Green River basin," Suckling charges.
Arroyo sees it differently - the costs of restricting land use to save wildlife must also be considered.
"We have to implement the act within the social and economic context in which we live," he said.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times