Marbled Murrelet Rider Soundly Rejected By House

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Another Turning Point in Anti-Environmental Congress

(06/19/1996) - Washington, D.C: In a tremendous victory for endangered species, a record number of Republicans rejected an anti-wildlife rider to the Interior Appropriations bill for 1997. A total of 82 Republicans crossed the party line and voted with Congressman Norm Dicks (D-WA) to continue protection for marbled murrelet critical habitat in northern California.

Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen said immediately after the vote that, "Congress is finally listening to the American public. Anti-environmental riders, especially those undermining the battered Endangered Species Act, have no place on appropriations bills."

Consideration of the Interior appropriations bill continues tomorrow. Congressman Frank Riggs (R-CA) had attached to the DOI Appropriations bill a rider prohibiting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from designating or implementing critical habitat protection on private lands in California for a small seabird, the marbled murrelet. "The Riggs rider gave a special interest favor to a corporation attempting to sidestep a court order," said Schlickeisen. "Congressman Dicks did endangered species a great favor today. The Riggs rider would have set a terrible precedent for special exemptions in every district."

The final vote count was 257 - 164. While moderate Republicans were strangely quiet during the floor debate, they were there when it mattered -- coming out in droves to keep the Riggs rider off the DOI Appropriations bill, according to Schlickeisen. "They knew it was veto bait," said Heather Weiner, Legislative Counsel for Defenders. "No one wants to see another brutal fight between the Administration and Congress over the environment."

The vote is another important turning point for the future of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The 104th Congress started out with anti-ESA legislation such as the Young/Pombo bill (H.R. 2275). Today the tide appeared to be turning as Democrats lined up to tell ESA success stories from their districts. "Members listened to the words of Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who said that the Riggs Rider would have 'befouled the aisles' of the House of Representatives," said Mary Beth Beetham, Defenders' Legislative Representative.

Some conservationists predict that the Dicks amendment to remove the Riggs rider will be the last major ESA vote of the session. Efforts to reauthorize the ESA have stalled in the House and many groups are eager to see more proactive legislation introduced. "Almost 200 conservation and scientific organizations are supporting changes to the ESA that strengthen protections for imperiled species," said Weiner. "We have never agreed with the premise that the ESA must be weakened in order to make it work better."

BACKGROUND ON THE RIGGS RIDER

The Riggs rider was designed to circumvent an order by the U.S. District Court in Northern California (Marbled Murrelet v. Pacific Lumber Co.). In February 1995, the court stopped Pacific Lumber from cutting crucial sections of marbled murrelet habitat without first completing a sufficient Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), as required by section 10 of the ESA. After the Pacific Lumber decision, FWS designated a limited amount of non-federal lands as critical habitat. Approximately 48,000 acres, slightly over 1% of the total amount of critical habitat designated, is on private lands. Some of these private lands are in Washington and Oregon but the Riggs amendment did not apply to there -- only the critical habitat in his district (44,500 acres) was exempted.

The marbled murrelet is a rare seabird that depends on old-growth coastal coniferous forests between southeast Alaska and Santa Cruz, California. Unlike other sea birds which nest in sand, the marbled murrelet nests in branches 150 feet above pine-needled floors in "cathedral- like" columns of trees. Successful nesting is particularly important to this species because a nesting pair usually produces only one chick per clutch, and the few surviving chicks are very susceptible to predators.

The marbled murrelet's population in California, believed to have been about 60,000, is now estimated to be between 2,000 and 5,000 individuals. Commercial logging has destroyed more than 95% of the marbled murrelet's nesting habitat. Because of the precarious state of the marbled murrelet population, the destruction of any significant amount of marbled murrelet habitat will result in a high probability that the Northern California population will become extinct.

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