It's a perennial question: Is this administration for the birds, or what?
And the answer, as usual, is a little bit yes and a little bit no.
On the yes side, the Interior Department and the White House are getting ready for a big July Fourth announcement of a proposal to take the bald eagle off the endangered species list. This is great news, of course, for the national bird, not so long ago in dire straits because of habitat loss and the pernicious effects of pesticides, primarily DDT.
The bald eagle's recovery after the 1972 banning of DDT--from fewer than 450 nesting pairs in the early 1960s to more than 4,500 pairs in the 1990s--no doubt will be hailed by the administration as evidence of the success of the much-maligned Endangered Species Act.
Still up in the air is who will do the honors, and talks are continuing about whether President Clinton or Vice President Gore will take part.
If Clinton is a bit wary about this particular job, it's understandable. Three years ago, not long after the bald eagle was down-listed from endangered to threatened, he helped release an injured bird back into the wild at Patuxent Naval Air Station. The eagle, named Freedom, was promptly attacked by an osprey and had to be nursed back to health before being released--this time uneventfully--again.
Meanwhile, conservationists and officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are less happy with a decision this week by the Environmental Protection Agency to give limited approval for use of a pesticide to control cotton pests that government scientists fear may be very bad news for migratory birds.
The pesticide is chlorfenapyr, the first of a new class of compounds known as pyrroles to be submitted for approval. It is used to control the beet army worm and other cotton pests.
Earlier this year, the EPA declined to authorize permanent registration of chlorfenapyr. The agency's risk assessment determined that long-term exposure "leads to reduced egg production, reduced hatching success and reduced nesting survival" for many bird species. The chemical, the EPA concluded, is "one of the most reproductively toxic pesticides to avian species" ever evaluated.
But this week, the EPA granted growers in 11 states the right to use the pesticide on an emergency basis this year if they can demonstrate their fields have a serious infestation of beet army worms.
Speaking on background, a senior EPA official said the agency still has grave reservations about chlorfenapyr but believes the economic risk to cotton growers is severe enough to permit its limited use.
"We have very serious concerns about the environmental impact of this chemical, particularly its persistence in the environment and its impact on the reproductive ability of birds," the official said. "But we felt that the beet army worm is truly a devastating pest and can cause tremendous damage and that under very, very limited circumstances we could impose controls on the chemical for this season to allow farmers to fight the beet army worm and still protect the environment."
Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who are responsible for protecting endangered species and migratory birds, are not happy about losing this interagency fight.
"It's extremely toxic," said Mary G. Henry, branch chief for ecosystem health in the Fish and Wildlife Service's environmental contaminants division. "There are many other alternative chemicals registered for use on beet army worms."
Also unhappy is the American Bird Conservancy. "We have deep concerns about reproductive effects that we may not be aware of for years," said Kelly Tucker, who directs the group's pesticides and birds campaign.
FEDERAL RECREATION: On a more harmonious interagency note, the Interior Department has announced, just in time for the summer vacation season, a newly overhauled, and presumably better, Web site for accessing information on recreation spots managed by the federal government. The Web site, www.recreation.gov, provides a single point of entry for information on more than 1,900 recreation areas run by eight agencies. They include national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges and more.
Type in "bicycling" and "Colorado," for example, and the site gives you 31 alternatives, with links to weather forecasts and maps.
"Recreation.gov is a great example of working together in partnership to provide better service to the public," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.