Regardless of Size, Location, Species Share a Threat: Man

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

In the Washington region, the dramas of disappearing plants and animals often play out on ridiculously small stages. One species lives only on three mountainsides. Another clings to cobblestones in three streams. Another survives, maybe, in the soil along a single river.

But despite their tiny scale, none of these stories lack suspense. Because entire lines of creatures are at risk, to say they are about life and death is probably understating it.

Across Maryland, Virginia and the District, 73 species are listed as threatened or endangered by the federal government. Dozens more are listed by the governments of those three jurisdictions.

They are a diverse group: dive-bombing falcons and sand-dwelling beetles, semi-famous squirrels and anonymous plants, a blind crustacean and a sea monster. But most share a common problem: us.

Last week, the Bush administration proposed giving federal agencies more leeway to decide whether their projects threaten protected species such as these. The agencies could bypass consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The government says the change would be trivial. Environmentalists say it would remove a crucial level of protection for the 1,353 plants and animals on the federal threatened and endangered lists.

"The rule-making will make it more difficult for species like the piping plover, the bog turtle, the Delmarva fox squirrel . . . to recover," said Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund, naming three of the area's endangered or threatened species.

Some activists say the move could make it easier for highways or construction projects to destroy precious habitats.

"What this proposal really shows is the deep-seated and continuing hostility by this administration" toward endangered-species laws, said Bob Irvin of the Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife. The Bush administration has already been criticized for using procedural rules to make it more difficult to add species to the protected list.

The federal proposal would change practices: Now, agencies often consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether a danger to protected species exists. If the rule is approved, the agencies could make more of the decisions on their own.

Tina Kreisher, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said agencies would face serious consequences if they harmed a protected plant or animal. "If they're wrong, they're liable," Kreisher said.

This week, The Washington Post will profile 17 of the region's endangered and threatened species. Nine capsules appear today, and others will appear daily.

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