Slip-Sliming Away

Have our threatened species found a friend in the federal courts?

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A pinkie-length salamander recently slithered onto the endangered species list, starting a political brawl as ugly as the Texas critter itself.

Earlier this year, Mother Jones reported how the federal government consistently caves in to state lobbyists and politicians who oppose adding creatures to the Endangered Species Act’s list (“Basic Extinct,” January/February). Remember the Barton Springs salamander, which Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt refused to add to the list two years ago? Even when it appeared that only seven of the salamanders remained, he opted for a vague “conservation agreement” between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Texas that denied the tiny amphibian the strict protections provided by the act. The deal benefited housing developers, who wanted to build near the salamander’s sole habitat.

But in April, Babbitt announced he’d add the rare amphibian to the list after all. His change of heart was prompted by federal Judge Lucius Bunton: “Strong political pressure was applied to the secretary to withdraw the proposed listing of the salamander,” the judge wrote — reminding Babbitt that, by law, listing decisions should be based on scientific concerns only.

Conservationists are elated. “This is a rare victory for science over politics,” says David Hillis, a zoology professor at the University of Texas.

And such victories may soon be more common. This spring, federal judges made similar decisions in cases involving the jaguar in the Southwest and the Canadian lynx in the Northwest. The jaguar case had special significance, according to environmentalists, because it was the first time a judge demanded that a species be added to the list (usually judges merely require the interior secretary to reconsider his decision).

State politicians grouse about these aggressive moves by the courts. Texas Gov. George Bush, who received more than $100,000 from land development interests during the last election cycle, is “sorely disappointed” by Babbitt’s salamander ruling. “We had entered into a workable conservation agreement with the federal government and they essentially cut and ran,” says Bush’s press aide.

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