Frightening Tales of Endangered Species

Chuck Cushman was on a roll. His ruddy face enflamed to imperial purple as he unleashed a horror story about the dastardly practices of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “endangered species strike force.” Seems back in February of 1994 a black helicopter swooped down on a rice patty in Kern County, California. Twenty-five armed federal agents emerged from the chopper and swarmed across the plantation, arresting the owner, a certain Taung Ming-Lin, a hardworking, commie-hating Taiwanese rice farmer, for having accidentally killed, yes, an endangered rat.

The feds seized his tractor, confiscated his plow and sent Mr. Ming-Lin off to the federal penitentiary. Then the bank foreclosed on his farm. “That was the whole point of t he operation,” Chuckman thundered. “The feds wanted that property for themselves. Another case of empire building, pure and simple.”

Cushman, insurance salesman turned anti-green crusader, head of the American Land Rights Association and star carnival barker to Wise Use confabs across the country, wasn’t finished. He next spun the sad tale of poor Ben Cone, who had the distinct misfortune to own property in North Carolina, a state where property rights were once sacrosanct-until, that is, the red-cockaded woodpecker showed up. When federal wildlife snoops discovered the endangered bird on Cone’s land (or planted it there, according to other versions of the tragic tale), the immediately cordoned off more than 1,000 acres of the Cone estate, prohibiting any kind of development whatsoever. The men in black, Chuckman roared, even forced Cone to hire a wildlife biologist to develop a monitoring plan for the useless woodpecker. The price? Nearly $10,000. That’s right, Chuckman sneared. Ten grand, out of Ben Cone’s own pocket.

Until the red-cockaded woodpecker came along, Chuckman reported to the rapt crowd of loggers and miners and ORV-driving Christians, Cone was a responsible logger, managing his little plot of woods with tender care. But that protection area for the woodpecker, that green zone, if you will, cost Cone nearly $2 million. To recoup these loses and to prevent the red-cockaded woodpecker from expanding its range and placing even more of his property off-limits to “management,” Cone, Chuckman said with shake of his head, was left with no choice but clearcut the rest of his land. “See the perverse incentives at work?” Chuckman asked. “Now, some environmentalist will probably come along and accuse him of being a land raper, when the feds left him no choice.”

Then he told the horrifying tale of the southern California hospital that was halted in order to protect eight endangered sand flies. Then Chuckman related the shocking news that federal agents were responsible for devastating wildfires in California that destroyed hundreds of homes because use of lawnmowers were banned to protect endangered rats. Even geese are tortured to protect useless rare species, Chuckman said, as he recounted how federal Fish and Wildlife agents descended on a flock of Canadian geese in Utah and forced them to vomit to see if their stomachs contained the endangered Kanab ambersnail.

Cushman isn’t the only one telling such stories. The Timber Industry Labor Management Committee and the anti-environmental National Wilderness Institute have a few of their own. Have you heard about how the red-cockaded woodpecker, the Al Qaeda of the avian kingdom, threatens our national security? Apparently, these stealthy woodpeckers have secretly invaded patches of old growth forests which have miraculously survived the chainsaw at Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina. The presence of these invaders has paralyzed the Army’s plans to construct a desperately need new detention facility. To make matters worse, the woodpeckers have interfered with Army training exercises and weapons testing.

Then there is the depressing tale from the Florida Keys, where the Fish and Wildlife Service’s timid efforts to provide a sanctuary for the last 400 or so Key deer, a species nearing oblivion, have apparently place elementary school children at grave risk. How could this be? Well, according to the National Wilderness Institute, the feds nixed plans for the construction of a new elementary school because it might impinge upon an 8,000-acre Key deer preserve. Now the kids must be bussed down 30 miles of dangerous swamp road around the preserve.

If that doesn’t rile up you, perhaps the story of the Texas widow will stir your anti-environmental passions. As the president of the National Cattlemen’s Association told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, it was only weeks after her late husband’s estate was settled when Mary Rector had the extreme misfortune to find a pair of golden-cheeked warblers nesting in her hedgerow. Mrs. Rector wanted to mow down that unsightly tangle of thorny shrubs and subdivide her property in a manner good Texans have been doing for generations. But then, suddenly, Fish and Wildlife agents rushed in, stilling the dozers and threatening to prosecute the distraught widow unless she left the diminutive songbirds to nest in peace.

Then the head of the Alliance for America stepped to the microphone to tell the senators of the agonizing fate of the Shepard family, whose family enterprise was shut down to protect a catfish. For more than 100 years, the Shepards of Kansas had been mining gravel out of the bed of the Neosho River. Then the feds shattered the family dream. Their gravel scooping days were over. All because of the madtom catfish.

Then there is story of Michael Rowe, the California man whose home was ruined for a single rat! For years, Rowe had put away money to build an addition to one-bedroom home on his 20-acre ranch near Winchester. Then he discovered that his house site was within a study area for the Stephens kangaroo rat. Rowe could have hired a biologist for $5,000, but if he found a single rat on the property his addition would be deemed illegal. If no rats were found, a missive from the American Land Rights Association said, Rowe would then have to pay the government $40,000 for a rat reserve elsewhere. In essence, the Rowe dream house was destroyed by fed overlords before it left the drawing board.

These anecdotes, and dozens more just like them, seem to be heart-wrenching stories of small landowners, all deeply versed in the works of Jefferson and Wendall Berry no doubt, threatened by an aggressive and indifferent federal government that places the rights of rats and flies above the well-being of people. These are, of course, industry counter-myths, sensationalist narratives illustrating the ways endangered species and their advocates menace humanity.

Curiously, not one of these horror stories is quite true. And most are patently false. The Texas widow, for example, was advised that only that an endangered species was found on her property. The Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t stop her from wiping out the nesting birds by clearing a swath thirty feet wide and a mile long, nor did the agency prevent her from subdividing the ranch for more than a cool million.

In the Florida Keys, the elementary school was indeed built in Key deer habitat, and the endangered species’ population is plummeting. Today only 255 remain in that locale.

The US Army achieved a decisive victory over the red-cockaded woodpecker in the battle at Fort Bragg. The massive new facility is now operational and tanks are once again blasting away in woodpecker habitat.

Mr. Cone, the sensitive logger, did indeed clearcut his 2,000 acres of North Carolina pine forest for a handsome profit, with no interference from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

As for Mr. Rowe, the California man terrorized by the kangaroo rat, his problems started with Riverside County Habitat Conservation Planning Agency, which had designated part of his property as a kangaroo rat study area. The county had agreed not to grant any grading permits within such study areas unless a biologist demonstrated that it was not being used by kangaroo rats. In the case of Mr. Rowe’s property, the cost of hiring a biologist would not have been $5,000, but around $500. Indeed, a Fish and Wildlife Service agent offered to conduct the study for free, but Rowe declined. The mitigation fee for the rat reserves was not $40,000, but a mere $1,000, with the money going into a reserve acquisition fund. Mr. Rowe’s home was not destroyed. Indeed, it is still occupied.

As for the hospital in Colton, California supposedly put on hold for sake of the eight sand flies, the construction of the building was never halted. An agreement was reached between the developer and the Feds regarding the sand flies before construction began. The developer agreed to set aside 10.27 acres near the hospital as a reserve for the species. The hospital site is 76 acres in size, thus the fly habitat constitutes only 13 percent of the total acreage. The hospital is now fully operational. The sand flies aren’t doing nearly as well.

In Kansas, the wows suffered by the Shepard family’s gravel mining operation were also exaggerated for senatorial consumption. The state of Kansas listed the Neosho River madtom catfish as a threatened species in 1978. State biologists temporarily halted gravel scooping operations by the Shepard’s until they could determine what, precisely, was needed to protect the fish during spawning time. Alternate sites in the river continued to be available for gravel mining. Mining continues. Catfish continue to decline.

Taung Ming-Lin, the Kern County rice farmer, was informed when he purchased his plantation that it contained habitat for several endangered species, including the Tipton kangaroo rat, San Joaquin kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard. Ming-Lin was told that he would need a state permit before he developed his property. The farmer ignored this advisory and two subsequent instructions and proceed to grade, plow and flood the fields. When federal and state wildlife agents came to investigate (in jeeps, not black helicopters), they discovered several kangaroo rat corpses, charged Ming-Lin with violating the Endangered Species Act and seized a small tractor and disc. Six months later the government dropped the charges, after Ming-Lin agreed to wait six more months before resuming his farming operations, obtain the necessary permits (allowing him, in effect, to legally kill endangered species) and donate $5,000 to an endangered species protection program in Kern County. His farm was not foreclosed on. In fact, it’s being farmed today.

On the surface these Tales of the Endangered Species Act Run Amok might appear to be little more than rural legends, evidence of a kind of infectious ecological paranoia in the backwoods. Certainly, various versions of these stories have been spun for years on Liars Benches in small town across the South and the West.

But the political reach of these tall tales extends far beyond the backwaters and bayous of the Republic. In fact, they represent a carefully calculated campaign against the Endangered Species developed by PR firms and lobbyists on behalf of real estate moguls, timber and mining companies and their Wise Use movement front groups. These anecdotal fragments have been stitched together into a potent counter-narrative, designed to implant anxieties in the common folk, to foster anger and rebellion against phantom oppressors.

Imprinted on the national consciousness by the verbose howlings of Rush Limbaugh and twisted reporting of ABC’s John Stoessel, large segments of the American public now accept these tales as facts. It’s gone far beyond owls versus loggers. Now obscure species such as the pearly-shelled pocket mussel and the fairy shrimp are portrayed as the brutal instruments of Big Brother.

These manufactured tragedies have developed a stronger currency in the past decade or so, partly due to the reactionary political climate that has descended over the country, the white rural male backlash against the government and the rise of an anti-nature Christian Right. The bureaucratic bunglings of the Clinton and Bush administrations have helped foment the unrest.

But widespread popular acceptance of these endangered species myths has most of all to do with the hard, and handsomely remunerated, work of powerhouse public relations firms such as Burston-Marsteller and Edelman PR, which have precisely choreographed the telling of these stories in the popular press, across the talk radio airwaves and in tear-stained testimony on Capitol Hill.

Under the guidance of these gurus of consumer consciousness, the once enormously popular Endangered Species Act has been portrayed as a law born of good intentions that has been horribly abused by an insensitive federal government backed by nature-worshipping environmentalists. Thus, reality is inverted. The David and Goliath struggle is no longer about the grizzly bear against the chainsaws of timber giant Plum Creek, the sockeye salmon against the unforgiving hydrodams of Columbia or the peregrine falcon versus the toxic ravages of DDT.

In the corporate counter-myth, the Endangered Species Act, backed by armed agents of the bloated federal government, is suffocating the small farmer’s hopes of living out his Jeffersonian dream, undermining the grizzled rancher seeking to defend Manifest Destiny, and bankrupting the kindly widow who only wanted to put the grandkids through college.

In fact, 99 percent of the time when the Endangered Species Act clicks into action it simply pits one branch of the federal government against another: the Fish and Wildlife Service tries to halt Forest Service logging and road-building plans or the National Marine Fisheries Service lodges a protest against some outlandish scheme the Corps of Engineers has for killing off yet another river. And nine times out of ten, the wildlife advocates lose these inter-agency confrontations. The timber sales are logged, the roads are built, the dams flood the canyon and the spawning beds-seldom with any alterations. In over 25 years, only about 10 projects have been entirely halted due to conflicts with an endangered species. Ten out of tens of thousands.

Private landowners only enter the picture when they are receiving some kind of federal subsidy or when they commit especially egregious violations of the law, usually involving the killing of a listed species. Even then the fines are puny. And even hefty fines won’t stop the slide toward extinction.

All this being said, the challenge for environmentalists is not to construct counter-myths. Nor is it to join in yet another lavish media campaign, developed by some competitor of Burston-Marsteller, defending the existing Endangered Species Act. The real challenge is simply to speak the truth.

Environmentalists need to come right out and say it straight: the Endangered Species Act is a well-intentioned failure. Not because it places animals over people, but because it is almost totally ineffective. The act, passed in 1973 in the reign of good King Richard Nixon, friend to all living things, was one of the single most important pieces of environmental legislation in the nation’s history. Now it is dying. At its best, America’s premier environmental law is little more than a final, frail safety net, a kind of welfare program for wildlife, designed to drive species down to their minimum viable populations and keep them there. It is an over-packed ark, leaking at every seam.

Saving the Endangered Species Act is not enough. The law needs to be thoroughly overhauled, substantially strengthened with tough sanctions for violators and, most importantly, tied directly to the protection of ecosystems and public lands.

The chances of this happening are almost nil. Why? Because the annual political spats over the future of the Act serve the purposes of both parties and their constituents. Even the big environmental groups have a financial stake in this fake fight over the future of the law. The law has been sitting in limbo since the Carter era. And predictably, Each every year, the industry groups offer up a bill to gut the Act. The Democrats offer a weak compromise and the green groups will issue emergency fundraising alerts to save the law. Stalemate occurs. The green groups will raise more millions claiming victory and the developers will continue to invade endangered species habitat with a winning record of 10,000 wins to 10 losses. Because a fiction known as the Endangered Species Act will still be around, the pro-industry Wise Use Movement will still able to raise money to fight it. As for the corporations, if they log, mine or build on public lands they will still receive billions in taxpayer subsidies and if they choose not to log, mine or build on their own properties they can claim ecological harm or a “takings” and get millions more in compensation.

So there you have it. A win-win solution for everyone except the spotted owl, Mexican wolf, grizzly, salmon and all those other species soon to disappear from the face of the Earth or be preserved in test tubes in some genetic zoo. And that sad saga is no tall tale.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. He can be reached at:


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3