Close Vote On Endangered Species Shows Congress Cannot Override Veto

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Turning Point in Anti-Environmental Congress

(03/13/1996) - Washington, D.C.: In what their leaders consider another major turning point in an anti-environmental Congress, conservationists narrowly lost a vote on an endangered species amendment by only two votes today.

Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen said immediately after the vote that, "Conservationists lost a squeaker in our effort to lift the moratorium imposed by Congress in 1995 on listing new species and designating `critical habitat' under the Endangered Species Act. But the narrow margin shows bipartisan support to sustain a Presidential veto on this issue."

President Clinton has announced his opposition to the moratorium. Schlickeisen said, "Continuation of the moratorium is veto bait for the appropriations bill. Based on the numbers opposing the moratorium in today's vote, we now expect the President to veto the spending bill unless the moratorium is lifted. This is another major turning point in an anti-environmental Congress."

Senators Harry Reid (D-NV), John Chafee (R-RI) and Max Baucus (D-MT) championed an amendment to the omnibus rescissions and appropriations bill to lift the moratorium. In addition to Chafee, other Republicans supporting their efforts included Senators Michael DeWine (R-OH), Judd Gregg (R-NH), James Jeffords (R-VT), William Roth (R-DEL), Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Fred Thompson (R-TN).

In the end, however, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) successfully weakened the Reid amendment with a confusing second-degree amendment that extended the moratorium through September 1996. It was the vote to kill Hutchison's amendment that failed 49 to 51 -- a two-vote margin. Although Hutchison claimed her amendment would help save species in "emergency" situations, she provided only $1 in funding for such emergencies and created bureaucratic hurdles.

In fact, the moratorium on listing new species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in April 1995, was the result of another Hutchison amendment to the Defense rescissions bill. The moratorium has jeopardized at least 250 species according to Defenders of Wildlife.

William Snape, Defenders' Legal Director, said today that, "The Hutchison amendment was another cynical chapter in the Stealth Campaign against the Endangered Species Act, but the narrowness of the vote means that it could be the last chapter. Almost half of the Senate saw through this thin attempt to camouflage continuation of the moratorium by allowing `emergency listings' while providing a mere $1 in funding to carry them out. The Reid amendment would have lifted the moratorium, but apparently those who oppose the ESA felt they couldn't win on a straight up-and-down vote so they offered a sham amendment that falsely purported to solve the emergency for endangered species. They are less likely to get away with it again."

Not since the listing shutdown during the era of Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt have imperiled species suffered such an extended gap in protection. A lack of funding for the listing program and the continuation of the listing moratorium are causing serious environmental destruction throughout the United States, Defenders of Wildlife warned.

The supposedly "temporary" ESA listing was originally intended to expire at the end of Fiscal Year 1995, or whenever the ESA was reauthorized. "Unfortunately, ESA reauthorization is still up in the air," said Heather Weiner, Legislative Counsel for Defenders. "We are dismayed that this omnibus bill extends and expands the short-sighted ESA rider. But while some in Congress are continuing their attacks on America's natural heritage by significantly cutting funding for biodiversity protection and research, increasingly more of their colleagues are opposing them."

The 1996 Interior appropriations bill -- rolled into the omnibus bill -- allows only minimal funds ($0.750 M) for delisting and downlisting (decreasing or removing protections for wildlife) activities. The suspended listing activities normally include: scientifically assessing proposed species; listing and giving protections to species threatened or endangered by imminent extinction; and conducting scientific reviews of listed species and assessing the need to reclassify or delist them. When the moratorium was first passed in April 1995, approximately 80 species had been proposed for listing. Today, scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service estimate that over 250 species are in need of listing and another 270 should be scientifically evaluated.

In summary, conservationists say that the results of the moratorium so far include:

  • 250 Species Are Dangerously Close to Extinction. Since the moratorium was first activated, more than 250 species have been denied a final listing decision. These species were formally proposed for listing by the Fish and Wildlife Service because they are in desperate need of protection. Scientists have determined that many of these species will soon go extinct if conservation actions are not taken now.
  • Native Plants And Potential Medicines Are Threatened. Disappearing species of Hawaiian and Californian plants account for at least 100 of the species currently proposed for listing. Protection for plants does not impact activities on private lands under the ESA. Nevertheless, without ESA protection, these plants remain extremely vulnerable to the effects of federal development and land management in Hawaii and California. There are no exceptions in the moratorium for listing plant species, which are potential sources of medicines and vital to ecosystem health.
  • Atlantic Salmon Are Imperilled. (ME): Only 120 Atlantic salmon returned to spawn in their seven native rivers in Maine last year. Last September, the FWS proposed to list this species as threatened but final listing will be delayed, and more salmon will be lost, unless the moratorium is lifted.
  • 270 Additional Species Are Disappearing. An additional 270 species have been determined by FWS to warrant protection under the ESA, but they cannot even be proposed for listing under the current moratorium. If the Fish and Wildlife Service had the funds and ability to conserve them now, it might prevent the need to list them later. Instead, Congress is ensuring that these species will be in dire need of listing once the moratorium is lifted.
  • The Florida Black Bear Is Jeopardized. At one time Florida and parts of southern Georgia and Alabama had more than 12,000 black bears. Florida's bears were found in every part of the state, including the Florida Keys. Now, fewer than 1,500 bears remain in scattered and isolated populations--less than 20 percent of the bear's historic range. A unique subspecies, Ursus americanus floridanus is considered threatened with extinction by the state of Florida. It was scheduled to be federally protected under the Endangered Species Act by 1996, but is now in "listing limbo." In 1992, the entire Florida Congressional delegation sent a letter to FWS requesting that this species be listed under the ESA. Yet the current moratorium prevents FWS from even proposing that this species be listed as threatened.
  • 3,700 More Species Are Declining. An astronomical 3,700 species are considered by wildlife biologists to be in need of special conservation efforts. No one is sure if these "species of special concern" are recovering orgoing extinct because the Fish and Wildlife Service does not have the ability to do the necessary surveys and research.

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Contact(s):

Joan Moody, (202)682-9400 x220 (Media)
Bill Snape, (202) 682-9400 x232 (Legal)