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Basic Extinct

The American bald eagle is the best-known success story of the Endangered Species Act. But some species don't get that kind of protection. Well-connected lobbyists keep them on the endangered "waiting list" -- and on the brink of extinction.

A recent study sponsored by the state of Texas and the city of Austin concluded that the Barton Springs salamander was "one of the most endangered vertebrate species in North America, if not the most endangered." Local citizens have drafted petitions, sported T-shirts, and devoted a Web site to the salamander's plight. There's just one problem: The federal government doesn't recognize it as endangered.

The Endangered Species Act protects plants and animals from hunting, harassment, and the destruction of habitats. More than 101 species are already extinct in the United States, and another 450 are presumed lost forever. Under the act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must act to restore species it determines are "threatened" or "endangered." But until the FWS actually lists a species, it has no legal obligation to save it.

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By law, FWS listings must be based solely on scientific judgment. But powerful political forces are looking to override science. From 1989 through 1995, some 176 PACs -- ranging from home builders to the oil and timber industries -- contributed $43 million to members of the 104th Congress in an effort to weaken the act. Some conservationists charge that the Clinton administration bends too easily to these forces, pointing to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's tendency to craft compromise agreements rather than push for endangered status.

The average person might not miss a salamander here, a wolf there. But the troubling truth is that the loss of animals like those noted here may signal the decline of entire ecosystems.

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