Animal Rights Legal Activists Fight for Endangered Species

In 1991, environmental activist Kieran Suckling was living in a tiny New Mexico town in the heart of timber and grazing country. His nascent group, then called the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project, finally had a budget—$5,000 for the year to cover all the work of a tiny handful of friends committed to keeping species from going extinct. To save money, they left brief lunchtime messages at federal agencies so the government would have to phone back and pay for the longer calls. To research his economic analysis of the Southwest’s timber industry, Suckling hitchhiked from Reserve, New Mexico to Albuquerque with his sleeping bag, spending days in libraries and nights sleeping in the bushes outside them.

Just over a decade later, the group has changed its name, its headquarters and its budget, becoming one of the most effective environmental groups in the West if not the nation at protecting biological diversity.

In fighting to protect the Mexican spotted owl, the Center for Biological Diversity effectively shut down logging in the Southwest for two years; it"s now at 84 percent of historic levels.
Robin Silver / Center for Biological Diversity

The renamed Center for Biological Diversity is based in Tucson, Arizona, has a $1.5 million budget, 30 full-time staffers, and offices in New Mexico, Alaska, Montana, Oregon and California. The Center’s 7,500 members provide 50 percent of the group’s funding to round out monies from foundations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, Patagonia and the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

The Center is responsible for petitions and lawsuits to list 119 plants and animals under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), and for winning habitat protection on more than 37 million acres on land and nearly 4,500 miles along and within waterways. The group claims credit for nearly half of all habitat protected for the sake of imperiled species in the United States.

The group’s success stems largely from its astonishing rate of legal victories. Suckling says the group has filed 215 lawsuits since 1993 and prevailed in 93 percent of those cases. The Los Angeles Times in August 2001 reported that the group has filed 75 lawsuits to force the federal government to protect plants and animals under the ESA; the group won 59 of those suits and lost only one.

The Center mostly uses the ESA, which Suckling calls “by far the most effective, powerful environmental law in the world.” First the group gets species under the full protection of the ESA, including habitat. Then it leverages that legal status to “go after industries that are destroying life on Earth.” With major activities halted, the work then shifts toward ecosystem-level strategies that “protect millions of acres at once instead of fighting a lot of individual battles.”

Over the past decade, the Center has proven its strategy’s success. For example, after listing the Mexican spotted owl, the Center shut down logging in the Southwest for 24 months; it’s now at 84 percent of historic levels. “Logging in the Southwest has gone from a thriving, deadly industry to a small-scale, seat-of-the-pants operation,” Suckling says. Now, in places where large companies always won logging rights, small businesses cull little trees to be used as fuel for pellet stoves.

But creating crises risks backlash. And while the group has made predictable enemies among timber, grazing and mining interests, it also has brought on criticism from others with similar goals.

“If you talk to people who are really in the trenches day to day, trying to make conservation work on the ground—what they will tell you is the Center’s tactics have been so sharply polarizing and divisive that it’s made the task of conservation harder, not easier,” says one long-time Washington, D.C. activist who declined to be named.

Joan Jewett, communications chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Pacific region, says overwhelming the agency with lawsuits is counterproductive. “I think that its completely inflexible pursuit of the agency has a paralyzing effect and a negative impact on public attitude,” she says. “In the long run, I don’t know that it’s really accomplishing a lot for species.”

But the biggest risk in the Center’s strategy is that backlash against it could lead to eviscerating or killing the Endangered Species Act itself. “The Center is relying on two things to be able to keep pushing this hard-nosed ESA agenda,” says Patrick Parenteau, who teaches at Vermont School of Law and in the late 1980s was hired by the FWS to defend the Northern spotted owl from attacks by the first Bush Administration. “One is that the backlash will never reach a critical mass that will gut the act, and two that somebody will fight the good fight to save the act in Washington other than them.” He says the Center doesn’t have the political clout in Congress to stave off such an assault.

But Suckling believes the risks are worth it. “Our nation’s efforts to protect endangered species are not nearly strong enough and they’re not working,” he says. “While we could back off, that would only allow the system to limp along while species inevitably go extinct. And so our response has been to go the other direction, to show that the system’s not working, to pour jet fuel on the fire. We want to ratchet up the pressure on federal agencies until we get systematic reform. And we’re seeing now that strategy pay off.”

Suckling points to the most recent round of attacks on the ESA. The FWS announced in early 2001 that it would not list new species because it had to devote all its time and budget to addressing lawsuits—many brought by the Center—requiring it to designate critical habitat for already protected species. Critical habitat is mandatory under the ESA; at the time, only 134 of the roughly 1,234 listed species had it.

Then, Interior Secretary Gale Norton asked Congress to prohibit agency spending in response to lawsuits, gutting the citizen oversight provisions that have been responsible for getting many of the now-protected species onto the list. That measure failed despite Republican control of both the White House and Congress.

In August 2001, the Center came to an agreement with the FWS—If the agency would list 29 species on the brink of extinction, the Center would allow the agency to extend the legally defined deadlines to address the critical habitat backlog. That settlement, covering species from the Pacific Northwest to southern Florida, vaulted the Center into the national spotlight as a key player on endangered species issues.

Inside the agency, even people who find the Center a nuisance acknowledge its importance. “A lot of people [in the FWS] feel like the groups sue us to make us do what we want to do but can’t because of political and fiscal realities,” says one high-level FWS official who declined to be named. “It’s a lot easier if you can say, {21}The courts made us do it.’”

For that reason alone, Parenteau and others say the Center’s work is critical, even if it’s just one piece of what’s needed to prevent extinctions. “Right now we are undermining the possi

bility of life on Earth, and we’re killing off humanity just as surely as we’re killing off the plants and animals,” Suckling says. “So I see everything we do as a battle to make life livable for the human race.”