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Jamie Rappaport Clark

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Extinction Rider Puts Us All in Danger

Posted: 07/22/11 06:38 PM ET

When I began my career almost 30 years ago, peregrine falcons were in dire straits. For decades, these graceful birds of prey had been slowly poisoned by the widespread use of the harmful pesticide DDT, which altered their internal chemistry and made their egg shells thinner. As result, fewer eggs hatched and the population plummeted, wiping out the species across much of the United States.

I spent a summer in college working with the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, where I had the chance to help make history. I was a member of a team of biologists that was releasing captive-bred peregrine falcon chicks back into the wild. Having disappeared east of the Mississippi by 1970, the species was about to take its first steps on the road to recovery, and I was helping make it happen.

As a young biologist, I would have never dreamed that nearly 20 years later, I would be Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and part of history again, as I announced the full recovery of the peregrine falcon. That incredible success was a direct result of the Endangered Species Act -- our nation's most forward-thinking and effective wildlife conservation law. Because of dedicated recovery efforts made possible by the act, peregrine falcons were able to fly off the endangered species list. And today, the species is thriving once again.

Unfortunately, it seems like not too many of us remember these triumphant moments. Too many have forgotten how instrumental the Endangered Species Act has been in saving America's imperiled wildlife. Too many are willing to go backwards on our nation's commitment to good stewardship. Too many are ready to give up on preserving the entire web of life for our children and grandchildren.

Next week, the U.S. House of Representatives plans to pass an ill-conceived budget bill for the Interior Department that would paralyze our nation's programs for protecting imperiled plants and animals. A provision included by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), and approved by the Appropriations Committee on July 12, would block crucial life-saving protections for more than 260 "candidate species" currently awaiting listing decisions under the Endangered Species Act.

Many of these species have already been waiting a decade or longer for protection as they continue their slide toward extinction. The lesser prairie chicken, for example, has been awaiting protection since 1998 when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service first added it to the candidate list. This colorful bird used to be abundant from southern Kansas to central Texas, but now exists in less than 15 percent of its historic range due to the ongoing destruction of its native habitat.

Other species, such as the wolverine, were only recently added to the candidate list. Scientists estimate there are fewer than 300 wolverines left in the lower 48, living on isolated peaks across the Rocky Mountains. To make matters worse, wolverines are losing habitat quickly as global warming disrupts the annual snowpack that the species depends on for survival.

The Extinction Rider, if passed, would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from taking further action to save not only the wolverine and the lesser prairie chicken, but also the Pacific walrus, the red knot shorebird, the New England cottontail rabbit, the Sonoran desert tortoise, and hundreds of other species that need our help to survive.

As a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I know first-hand how difficult it can be to watch these species struggle while the government fails them. During my tenure, Congress passed a moratorium on funding for endangered species similar to the Extinction Rider in the current proposal. The effect of that moratorium was to delay protection and recovery efforts far beyond the immediate fiscal year, because while we were forced to put vital programs on hold, imperiled plants and animals had to fend for themselves. Delaying much-needed protection for these imperiled species did nothing to suspend their slide toward extinction. It only ignored what science was telling us at that time.

The recovery of the peregrine falcon is just one of many great victories that our country has been able to celebrate because of the Endangered Species Act. In its nearly 40 years of existence, fewer than two dozen species have disappeared out of nearly 2,000 that have been protected. Iconic species like the bald eagle, American alligator, Florida panther and gray whale might not exist today if it weren't for dedicated conservation efforts initiated under the act.

But all those victories came after decades of careful planning and hard work. If we cut off funding now for protecting imperiled wildlife, there's no telling how long it will take to get back on track. And for many species on the brink, they don't have much longer to wait.