ANNAPOLIS – Changes to the Endangered Species Act now under consideration in the U.S. Senate will undo years of efforts to save both national and state wildlife, several Maryland environmental groups said Thursday.
Legislation in the Senate “will jeopardize over 20 years of progress in conservation,” said Goldie Weixel, an activist with MaryPIRG, a state consumer and environmental group.
Maryland currently has 16 animal and plant species, including the bald eagle, the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel and Canby’s dropwort, listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hawaii, with its greater diversity of wildlife, leads the nation with 289 threatened or endangered species.
State habitat destruction, according to government figures, has been widespread: 95 percent of the state’s natural barrier island beaches and 50 percent of its island dunes have been lost.
About 50,000 species worldwide go extinct every year, said Dr. Brian Parker, chair of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club.
State wildlife is most threatened by habitat destruction, Parker said, adding, “We’re concerned that suburban sprawl is eating up our wildlands.”
Roger Birkel, director of the Baltimore Zoo, issued the same warning: “We often talk of endangered species as if they happen in some distant land …. but it’s right here at home.”
And the importance of saving even the smallest species, Birkel said, is akin to the rivets holding together an airplane. As the plane flies along, it can afford to lose a few bolts. But if a certain amount are lost, the plan disintegrates and crashes. Nature, he said, works the same way.
But those changing the Endangered Species Act see their work as bringing the bill back to its real focus: saving threatened wildlife while fostering economic development.
The new act “is a bipartisan bill, backed by the administration,” said Mark Snider, a spokesman for bill sponsor Sen. Dirk Kempthorn, R-Idaho. The proposed changes to the law will strengthen wildlife recovery efforts by changing the process that determines which species are in trouble, he said.
The current law, Snider said, excels at listing species as troubled, but fails to aid their recovery. The proposed changes better balance the interests of landowners who want to develop land that might contain threatened wildlife.
But Weixel said those types of changes are exactly the problem.
The senators are taking “a backwards step,” she said, offering an example: One major provision would allow landowners to develop property that may be home to endangered species at the same time that scientists study the impact of development. By the time the scientists have reached their conclusions, the development could be complete and the species driven from that area. Snider said Kempthorn wants the new act passed into law this year. He said the bill is in the process of heading for a Senate vote, and if successful will be sent to the House of Representatives for consideration. -30-