Budget Cuts Endanger Animals

One might have thought the bald eagle’s triumphant comeback from near extinction--just in time for July 4!--would have been grounds for backslapping all around. No such luck: The national symbol’s resurgence has only prompted a fresh round of questions about the Bush administration’s slapdash approach to species preservation.

In the last six years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has added only 58 new species to the endangered list, less than any other administration since the list was introduced in 1973; Clinton gave protection to 521 species, and even Bush Sr. listed 234 new species during his four years in the White House. At present, almost 300 more at-risk species are on the waiting list for official protection. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has de-listed some 15 species--more than any other administration--and is gearing up to shunt another four animals, including the manatee and the peregrine falcon, into less-protected categories. 

The agency’s foot-dragging stems from a combination of chronic under-funding and a broader culture of complacency. Swinging budget cuts, which agency staff blame on the diversion of funds to help Bush’s war effort, have left the agency with almost a third of its staff positions, including its top position, which has stood empty for almost a year now. And at least in the higher echelons of the organization, there’s a tendency to see environmentalists as the enemy: Earlier this year, the agency’s Bush-appointed deputy assistant secretary was forced to resign after repeatedly overruling agency scientists and leaking internal documents to industry lobbyists.

In retaliation, wildlife campaigners have turned to the courts; of the 58 species Bush has added to the endangered list, 54 came in direct response to litigation. But the campaigners’ successes come at a price: The agency now diverts more and more of its resources to legal battles, leaving even less for the fight to save endangered species. All told, the agency’s woes have helped create a situation in which almost one in seven of the 1,326 species currently listed as endangered are verging on extinction, according to environmental groups.

Predictably, things look like they'll get worse before they get better: Bush says he plans to cut the agency’s budget by a further 28 percent in 2008. Wildlife campaigners should make the most of the bald eagle’s return from the brink; it may be the only good news they get for quite some time.