Declaring that the Endangered Species Act works, the administration says 29 birds, plants and animals, including the bald eagle, are on their way to recovery and may soon be removed from the law's protection.
The proposal announced in May by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt marks the first time in the law's 25-year history that such a large number of species would be earmarked for removal from the endangered list, although it would be done over two years.
The action would affect several species in the region. Besides the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the Dismal Swamp southeastern shrew, the Virginia northern flying squirrel, the brown pelican and the Virginia roundleaf birch would be either removed from the list altogether or downlisted from endangered to threatened status.
"For the first time we can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Babbitt said. "We can now prove one thing conclusively. The Endangered Species Act works. Period."
Critics of the 1973 law claim that it has not only caused widespread economic harm to landowners but has shown little evidence of protecting species because only a handful over a quarter-century have recovered enough to be left on their own.
Babbitt's latest pronouncements do little to change that view.
Many species that have recovered or are close to recovery, such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, "have recovered in spite of the ESA, not because of it," said Brian Seashole, a researcher on endangered species at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The bald eagle population, which had declined to 417 nesting pairs by the early 1960s, has steadily rebounded and now totals about 5,000 nesting pairs. In the mid-1970s there were fewer than 35 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons; today the number has grown to 1,500 pairs across the West. Both birds became widespread victims of pesticides, and their march toward recovery began with the ban of DDT in the United States.
There are 1,135 species on the list, including 466 animals and 669 plants. Babbitt acknowledged that efforts to get species off the list have lagged, but he said that's in part because "we've had to dig our way out from under" a backlog of species awaiting to be listed. That backlog grew when Congress imposed a yearlong moratorium on new listings in 1995.
Since the moratorium ended in April 1996, the backlog of species awaiting a final listing decision has dwindled to about 100. The Fish and Wildlife Service is putting new priority on unlisting some of the plants that have shown significant signs of recovery.
The 29 include such well-known species as the peregrine falcon, bald eagle and Michigan timber wolf - all of which have made widely publicized comebacks in recent years. And there are obscure plants such as the Missouri bladder-pod; the Hoover's wooly-star, which is found mostly on federal land in California; and the Tinian monarch, a bird found only on a Pacific island in the Northern Mariana chain.
Some of the species will be downgraded to threatened and others removed from the law's protection altogether, although states may still regulate them.
"It is an unprecedented action. They've never before put together such a list of species," said James Waltman of the Wilderness Society. But he also said the environmental community intends to examine the list closely to make sure the species have recovered sufficiently.
"It's a concern that politics not drive the process," said Mike Senatore of Defenders of Wildlife.
"The secretary wants to blunt the criticism from Congress and other quarters. ... [He] ultimately knows for the public to continue to view the endangered-species conservation effort favorably it really has to work," said Michael Bean, an endangered-speciesexpert at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Some species are expected to be taken off the list in certain parts of the country, but kept on elsewhere. One such example, said Babbitt, is the gray wolf, or timber wolf. In Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, it is close to full recovery, Babbitt said.
But in the Rocky Mountains, the species will likely be protected longer. Even there - where the wolf has been the focus of a reintroduction effort at Yellowstone National Park - the species might be ready to fend on its own "in three to five years," Babbitt said.
Since the American alligator was the first to be removed from the endangered-species list in the late 1970s, only six other species have recovered enough to be taken off the list entirely. Another 14 species were removed after they either disappeared or new information was uncovered indicating they never should have been put on the list in the first place.