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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Salmon Politics

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood and Pat Parenteau of Vermont Law School discuss the politics behind efforts to put creatures on the Endangered Species List. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is at the center of a current dispute in which he is accused of bowing to pressure from groups hoping to keep wild salmon in Maine off the list.


CURWOOD: Five years ago biologists recommended that the dwindling population of wild Atlantic salmon off the coast of Maine be classified as endangered. But the government failed to act. Now a lawsuit raises the possibility that U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave in to political pressure from interests worried that putting the fish on the Endangered Species List would hurt Maine's economy. Pat Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School, has been following this case, which he says began with a letter that Secretary Babbitt received from William Cohen, who was at the time a Republican senator from Maine.

PARENTEAU: I'll quote it to you. He said, "The disposition of this petition," referring to the petition to list the Atlantic salmon, "will greatly affect my views regarding changes to the Endangered Species Act that might be warranted." To most people that sounds like a political threat. (Laughs) That if he doesn't get his way, he's going to make things difficult for the Endangered Species Act.

CURWOOD: Do you think that Secretary Bruce Babbitt acted illegally in responding to Senator Cohen's letter?

PARENTEAU: The circumstantial evidence is pretty strong. The administrative record, that is, all of the studies on the salmon about its biological condition, all of that seems to point pretty strongly to listing the salmon. And the only thing you have standing against that is Secretary Cohen's letter and his threat to make life difficult. It certainly raises a presumption that the Secretary's decision to withdraw the listing, which is what he did immediately after receiving this letter, was illegal.

CURWOOD: Secretary Babbitt said when he did drop the federal listing, that the state of Maine had a conservation plan, and that the fish wasn't going to be abandoned to extinction but rather the local authorities were going to take care of this problem.

PARENTEAU: The state of Maine has no power to deal with what happens to the salmon in the ocean, and it doesn't even have power to deal with it up and down the East Coast, where the salmon migrate. So, for the Secretary to say I'm going to defer to the state really removes much of the protection that the Endangered Species Act was designed to provide through the mechanism of federal supervision.

CURWOOD: Let's say that Secretary Babbitt was trying to forge a compromise with the people in the state of Maine. Isn't this a common sort of approach that's being taken by the Clinton administration in these cases?

PARENTEAU: It is a common approach. And there's a lot to be said for the states, including Maine, taking some responsibility and doing their part to help in the recovery of the species. But that's much different than deferring and, in fact, advocating the responsibility of the federal government to do what it can for these species. See, the problem is that unless the species, in this case the salmon, is listed, the federal government has no power whatsoever.

CURWOOD: Professor Parenteau, tell me: Is the Endangered Species Act still viable?

PARENTEAU: Frankly, in its current condition, which I would term enfeebled, it is not really doing anything close to what is needed. And most people point to the fact that the Endangered Species Act is all stick and no carrot. If the Endangered Species Act is ever to really achieve any meaningful improvement, it's going to have to provide more meaningful incentives. Which means money. So, a lot of people are pointing to the need for considerably more assured funding. But so far, politically, there simply hasn't been the will in Congress to do that.

CURWOOD: Now, the Atlantic salmon has again been proposed for the Endangered Species List by the Fish and Wildlife Service. And of course, now, several salmon conservation groups have brought lawsuits calling for an emergency listing right away. Professor Parenteau, is this the direction we're headed in? I mean, that species will need vocal advocates lobbying on their behalf in order to be listed for protection? The government really just won't quite get around to doing it?

PARENTEAU: Yes. Unfortunately I have to say that we're seeing more and more cases where citizens, conservation organizations, local groups, even groups of people who fish recreationally or commercially, are, you know, basically having to force the government to do what the law says the government must do. And if they didn't have the ability to force those issues, then protection for these species simply wouldn't happen.

CURWOOD: Pat Parenteau is a law professor at Vermont Law School and former head of the school's environmental law center. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

PARENTEAU: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Secretary Babbitt's office told Living on Earth that only scientific factors are considered in the decision whether to list a species as endangered. A spokesperson says the Maine state conservation plan looked like the best option at the time, but now since the Atlantic salmon situation has not improved, Secretary Babbitt supports listing the fish.



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