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A growing regional divide over species act

Rural Westerners and Eastern legislators clash over changes to the law protecting endangered animals.

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The Endangered Species Act - the nation's premier environmental law affecting thousands of plants and animals and many times that many landowners - is poised to undergo its greatest shake-up since Richard Nixon signed it 32 years ago.

The House has passed legislation that changes several fundamental elements of the law, including protection of critical wildlife habitat and the financial rights of property owners. Whether similar legislation passes in the Senate - a large question at this point - it illustrates a deep and growing regional divide over fundamental environmental protections.

In general, ranchers, farmers, and others in the rural West (and their champions in Congress) want to make laws like those protecting endangered species far less restrictive. Eastern lawmakers, whether Republican or Democrat, are more likely to support sanctions on development and other land use in the name of protecting plants and animals threatened with extinction.

Protected under the ESA are 1,268 species. They range from such "charismatic megafauna" as grizzly bears to obscure species that many nonexperts would call bugs and weeds (but that scientists classify as important to the web of natural life).

Over the years, only a dozen or so species have rebounded to the point where they can be delisted, while nine have gone extinct. Were it not for the protections of the law (such as preserving habitat), many more would have disappeared, supporters of the law say. Or as Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, has said, "Ninety-nine percent of all the fish, plants and wildlife ever conserved under the Endangered Species Act have been saved from becoming lost forever."

Critics disagree, noting the large number of species that have languished on the list without recovering robustly as well as those whose status is not clearly known.

"Do these sound like the statistics of a successful law? Of course not," said Rep. Richard Pombo (R), the principal author of the proposed law, at a hearing. "The bottom line is the Endangered Species Act is in desperate need of an update," said Representative Pombo, a farmer and rancher from California's San Joaquin Valley who chairs the House Resources Committee.

Supporters of the bill say there needs to be a greater role for states, local governments, private individuals, and others potentially affected by the law.

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