Gazette editorial mischaracterized environmental groups' reaction to delisting of bald eagle as a threatened species

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

An editorial in The Gazette of Colorado Springs misleadingly suggested that environmentalist groups oppose delisting the bald eagle as a "threatened" species. But, as several media outlets have reported, mainstream environmentalist organizations in fact support this decision.

In a February 15 editorial about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's [USFWS] proposed removal of the bald eagle as a "threatened" species from the federal endangered species list, The Gazette of Colorado Springs mischaracterized the reaction of environmental groups to the USFWS decision. According to The Gazette, "You might think federal wildlife bureaucrats and environmentalists would be eager for the eagle's de-listing ... [but] delisting means a loss of regulatory power and control -- something anathema to bureaucrats and greens alike." In fact, contrary to The Gazette's unsubstantiated accusation, the decision to "delist" the bald eagle is "supported by mainstream environmental groups" -- a fact The Washington Post and numerous other media outlets have reported.

As The Gazette noted, "The American bald eagle, which had dwindled to 500 nesting pairs in the 1960s, has recovered from the brink of extinction and is thriving again. Most experts believe there are now about 8,200 nesting pairs across the United States, which qualifies the animal for de-listing, as [former President Bill] Clinton called for in 1999." The Gazette further editorialized, "But ... bureaucratic inertia set in and the agency in charge never got around to doing the paperwork. Red tape and lawsuits probably helped gum up the works."

While the Post reported on December 25, 2006, that the Clinton administration "left office without taking action," the same article noted that the Bush administration "promised to move on" the issue of delisting the bald eagle "but those efforts also lagged." The Post also reported that the "delisting [is] supported by mainstream environmental groups." The article quoted John Kostyak, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, as hailing the eagle's recovery as "an amazing success story," and noted that NWF "supports the delisting." The article also quoted Michael J. Bean, "who leads wildlife conservation efforts for Environmental Defense," as saying of the delisting, "[F]rom an eagle's point of view, it's a good thing to recognize it has recovered."

Similarly, a February 1 article in The Sacramento Bee reported that USFWS "never followed through" on Clinton's promise to delist the bald eagle, "claiming the bird's wide-ranging nature and diverse habitats complicated planning for the status change."

The Bee, like The Gazette, noted that the renewed effort to delist the eagle as a threatened species was prompted by a 2005 lawsuit brought on behalf of a Minnesota property owner by the Pacific Legal Foundation, an organization the Bee described as a "conservative ... nonprofit law firm that has waged war against environmental regulation." The Bee further reported that while "the delisting itself isn't the result of direct action by environmentalists," the environmental community has nonetheless embraced the decision:

In August 2006, a federal judge ... order[ed] the government to rule on the eagle's status by Feb. 16. Most observers expect the decision will be to delist the eagle. Environmental groups support that.

In a February 9 article about the guidelines USFWS is developing to ensure the bald eagle's continued protection after its removal from the list, the Journal News of Westchester County, New York, noted that "[m]ost eagle fans -- including government and environmental groups -- agree that the bird has recovered enough to warrant delisting." Similarly, a December 29, 2006, editorial (accessed through the Nexis database) in The Columbian of Vancouver, Washington, observed that "the bald eagle has rallied to the point now that even environmental groups support the Fish and Wildlife Service's plan to delist the bird."

One prominent conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity, came out in favor of extending the February delisting deadline to June in order for USFWS to "complete additional analysis" of the new eagle management guidelines. The organization has nevertheless indicated its support for the general idea of removing the bald eagle from the endangered species list. As a February 9 article in The Arizona Republic reported:

"Delaying the delisting of the bald eagle is a wise move," said Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity. The Tucson conservation group is suing Fish and Wildlife Director H. Dale Hall and his superiors for ignoring the advice of biologists to extend endangered species protection to Arizona's eagles, which currently number around 40 breeding pairs.

Suckling supports delisting eagles nationally, but joins a considerable chorus of protest against a key provision in Fish and Wildlife's postdelisting plan.

The "postdelisting" provision at issue would reportedly change the USFWS definition of "a disturbance" with regard to the eagles. As the Republic reported, "The proposed guidelines would allow developers to mow down trees, build and conduct other activities around eagle nests." It further noted that "[w]ildlife biologists have recommended continuing to use the time-honored meaning of 'disturb,' including activities likely to result in [an eagle's] death, injury or nest abandonment."

As the Associated Press reported, the Center for Biological Diversity, along with the Maricopa Audubon Society, serving the Phoenix metropolitan area, filed a lawsuit last year against USFWS seeking to have "Arizona's desert bald eagles classified as a distinct subspecies and keep them listed as threatened." The AP noted, however, that the suit addresses only "Arizona's current 39 desert nesting pairs [which] spend their lives within a limited area, breed earlier and do not interbreed with the estimated 300 other bald eagles that only spend winters in Arizona."

From the editorial "A soaring success: Let eagles fly off the endangered species list," in the February 15 edition of The Gazette of Colorado Springs:

It was 1999 and then-President Bill Clinton had the photoop to die for. He released an American bald eagle into the wild, pronouncing the species recovered enough to be removed from the endangered species list. But more than seven years later, the animal still hasn't been de-listed, demonstrating that getting an animal removed from protection is frequently far more difficult, and even more contentious, than getting it placed on the list.

You might think federal wildlife bureaucrats and environmentalists would be eager for the eagle's de-listing, so they have an ESA success story to point to. But think again. A delisting means a loss of regulatory power and control -- something anathema to bureaucrats and greens alike. Positive news on the environmental front can't be acknowledged by those whose careers and fundraising strategies depend on perpetuating a sense of crisis. Their interests aren't served by highlighting successes.

The American bald eagle, which had dwindled to 500 nesting pairs in the 1960s, has recovered from the brink of extinction and is thriving again. Most experts believe there are now about 8,200 nesting pairs across the United States, which qualifies the animal for de-listing, as Clinton called for in 1999. But Clinton also told Americans that the "era of big government is over," perhaps a tad prematurely.

But after Clinton's big photo-op, bureaucratic inertia set in and the agency in charge never got around to doing the paperwork. Red tape and lawsuits probably helped gum up the works. But a reluctance to relinquish power over ordinary Americans may also explain the foot-dragging.

Finally, the Pacific Legal Foundation had to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of its client, Edmund Contoski, whose family has for decades been prevented from building a cabin in the Minnesota woods due to eagle protections. A federal judge last year ordered the bureaucrats to remove the bald eagle from the threatened list, but they recently announced they would miss the deadline.

So the PLF went to court again, and now the Fish and Wildlife Service has promised to get the job done. The bald eagle will still be protected by two federal laws, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Under those laws, it will still be illegal to take, harm or kill the bird. What's needed are regulations that clarify that language so regulators, landowners and the general public know what is and isn't permitted.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.