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Babbitt backs off on bird

AFTER months of angry denunciations by landowners and political candidates, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has abandoned efforts to establish critical habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler in Texas.

Plans to protect the warbler, an endangered songbird that nests in the hills of Central Texas, have raised the ire of ranchers and landowners, who claim the US Fish and Wildlife Service wants to restrict use of their property. By law, the agency is required to designate critical habitat for endangered species. But in a Sept. 22 letter to Gov. Ann Richards (D), Mr. Babbitt said the agency will ``cease work'' on the critical habitat designation and will ``direct their energies towards working with State, local governments, property owners and other interested citizens to establish habitat conservation plans that protect our natural heritage and our economic potential.''

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The reversal by Babbitt was likely caused by political pressure from the Clinton Administration, which badly needs Richards in office to have any hope of winning Texas in 1996. Republican candidates in Texas, including George W. Bush, have hammered on the warbler issue as an example of federal interventionism in the state.

The warbler decision is the latest in a growing string of defeats for Babbitt. Despite his best efforts, Babbitt has been unable to establish regional conservation plans for endangered species in California and Texas and he has been forced to retreat on plans to reform logging, grazing, and mining practices in the western US. The policy shift on the warbler gives additional ammunition to property rights advocates and legislators seeking to reform the Endangered Species Act, which goes to Congress for reauthorization next year.

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