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Endangered Species Act under fire from two directions

Some hope to make it more difficult for plants and animals to receive protections, while others seek to strengthen the law

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Nobody's very happy with the federal Endangered Species Act - arguably the most powerful of all environmental protection laws.

Scientists and activists say it fails to protect hundreds of "candidate" species headed for extinction because agencies haven't been able to get to them yet for lack of resources or political support. Property rights advocates say the law unfairly harms farmers, ranchers, and developers who have on their land what some deride as an inconsequential bug or weed.

Western governors of both parties say they should have more influence over how the law is defined and enforced. And congressional critics say endangered species protection is really run by judges who make draconian decisions without considering their economic or social impact. Lawmakers are poised to take action.

Protecting species can be as delicate and complicated as a spider's web.

Scientists have found that the infamous spotted owl here in the Pacific Northwest, listed for years as "threatened" because its habitat had been reduced by logging and other activities, also is under attack by the larger, more numerous barred owl. So they're considering an experiment to "remove" - i.e., kill - some barred owls so that its smaller, spotted cousin will have enough habitat to recover.

On the other hand, the ivory-billed woodpecker - thought to have gone extinct half a century ago - recently has been spotted in an Arkansas swamp.

The politics of species protection has become more complicated as well - particularly as religious groups get involved.

"You can expect to hear from many people of faith as they witness with passion and resolve about the importance of protecting endangered species," Dorothy Boorse told a recent congressional committee. Dr. Boorse teaches biology at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., and is an evangelical Christian active with the Noah Alliance, a coalition of religious groups that support species protections.

With help from the Endangered Species Act (ESA), some species have done very well, among them the peregrine falcon, the American alligator, the bald eagle, and the California condor.

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