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Endangered, but on road to recovery

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Is the Endangered Species Act really helping the piping plover, Delmarva Fox squirrel and more than 1,300 plants and animals on the protected list survive - or is it as critics argue - a costly failure?

One of the nation's landmark environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the focus of congressional overhaul legislation. Reformers say the act wastes taxpayers' money, spawns costly lawsuits, and does little to help endangered species.

But a independent study released Tuesday suggests otherwise, showing populations of most listed species in the Northeast improved significantly under the ESA, the bald eagle most notably. Other species are stabilizing, the report said.

Concern about altering the ESA brought about the first-of-its-kind study by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz. It compiles federal, state, and university research to provide long-term population trend data for the large majority of endangered species in the Northeast.

At least 38 of 41 endangered species in the Northeast have increased in number or maintained stable populations since being listed, the report says. About 7 percent of species are in decline. No species has become extinct since being listed. The analysis included all species for which there were at least six years of data and a recovery timeline, comprising 73 percent of those listed.

"We find that the Endangered Species Act has been remarkably successful in the region," said the CBD report.

In particular, the bald eagle soared from 417 pairs in 1963 to 7,230 by 2003. Populations of the American peregrine falcon, the Atlantic piping plover, the humpback whale, the Puritan tiger beetle, and the American Hart's-tounge fern also increased.

"It often takes many years on the [ESA] list before some populations even begin to rebound," says Peter Galvin, CBD conservation director. "These species didn't become endangered overnight, and people shouldn't expect them to recover overnight."

That's unlikely to satisfy those in Congress who say the act is a boondoggle. Less than 1 percent of the endangered species put on the list since 1973 have recovered enough to be taken off, critics say.

Leading the way to change the ESA is Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California, chairman of the House Resources Committee. He sponsored ESA overhaul legislation that passed the House last fall. Similar ESA legislation could surface in the Senate as soon as this month, observers say.

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