Endangered species may be endangered by the very agencies that are supposed to protect them. Or as Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporters Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler phrase it: "the federal government is handing out licenses to kill endangered species." And it’s all perfectly legal.

In an excellent three-part series this week, the P-I puts a spotlight on the practices of government agencies—and their often cozy relationship with developers and industry—that jeopardize the country’s rarest creatures. Many plaudits are due the newspaper for top-notch investigative reporting on an issue that is vital to our natural heritage.

Here’s the crux of the issue. Species listed under the Endangered Species Act—everything from bald eagles in Washington to timber wolves in Idaho to blind cave-dwelling spiders in Texas—are legally supposed to be protected from harm that might jeopardize their continued existence. In theory, many of these species are managed under "habitat conservation plans" that govern private landholders’ actions affecting the listed species. These plans do not lock up land in a pristine state. Far from it.

In fact, they often authorize logging, mining, suburban development, and other activities that will adversely affect endangered species, provided that the landowners agree to do something good for the species in return. But it gets worse.

  • In practice, the habitat conservation plans are so riddled with flaws that they would almost be laughable—if they were not also often the last line of defense for creatures that may not be long for this world. Habitat conservation plans currently cover 37 million acres of land in the United States; and that figure could soon grow to 100 million acres.

    Investigators for the P-I reviewed 98 conservation plans of 100 acres or more, including every plan approved from 1999 to 2004—more than 10,000 pages of documents. Here’s what they found:

    • "Half failed to say how the development, timber cutting or other activity would affect the overall health of the species."
    • "Only 27 percent… included benchmarks to ensure that, in fact, the "mitigation" would help the threatened animals."
    • "Advice from independent scientists is seldom requested before habitat conservation plans are struck."

    So how do we know whether the conservation plans are helping or hurting a species? The sad truth is: we don’t. And how do we know that activities such as logging or road-building won’t push a species’ population past a critical threshold and send it spiraling into extinction? Again, the truth is: we don’t.

    In fact, "top federal officials acknowledge that they have no system to track how habitat conservation plans are affecting threatened species…" Incredibly, it gets even worse.

    For all practical purposes, the plans are neither monitored nor enforced. According to the article, "citations for violating the agreements are almost unheard of." A 2002 report by the US General Accounting Office found that shortages of money and manpower mean that Endangered Species Act protections were rarely enforced. And the P-I investigators found that:

    • "Employees responsible for the plans spend less than 1 percent of their time checking on their implementation."
    • "Statistics on enforcement are not compiled."
    • "There is no formal process for addressing failures to live up to the plans."
    • "The possibility of revoking a permit is practically non-existent. In the program’s 23 years, it has never been done."

    And once the plans are agreed upon, it’s very difficult to change them even if new information comes to light. Private landowners are protected under a "no surprises" clause that allows them free reign to destroy endangered species and their habitat, even if scientific assessments of the magnitude of the harm change a decade or more later.

    To me, it’s deeply troubling that government agencies are writing these plans together with big developers and extractive industries, and with little opportunity for comment from the public. In an ideal world, habitat conservation plans would accomplish what they were intended to: they’d help landowners steward their resources in a way that doesn’t endanger the heritage of the nation, while at the same time providing some certainty to the landowner. But in their present form, I can’t help wondering if the system is broken beyond repair.

    Postscript: Do take a look at the P-I’s website for this coverage. It’s astonishingly comprehensive. There are galleries of species, charts, graphs, illustrations, species’ profiles, and many more articles than I have space to mention here. Kudos to McClure and Stiffler.