McCain and Obama on endangered species

Last week, we looked at Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s positions on public-lands issues. This week, we delve into their stances on another often-overlooked environmental topic: endangered species.

The Endangered Species Act hasn’t been discussed much by the candidates this election season, but it has been in the news in recent months. In August, it came to light that the Bush administration was trying to push through changes to the ESA that would exempt federal agencies from the independent reviews currently mandated for thousands of projects. Instead, agencies would be able to conduct their own reviews to determine whether projects would harm species. This month saw the release of new memos from Bush admin lawyers arguing that the ESA can’t be used to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, even if climate change is melting a species’ habitat.

Will the next president be inclined to follow the Bush path or take a more aggressive approach in protecting species? Here’s what we know about McCain’s and Obama’s records:

John McCain:

McCain had no comment on Bush’s ongoing effort to change the ESA review process, but the candidate has a long record on other species issues. And the topic gets passing mention on his campaign website, where he notes, “The long term success of wildlife and fisheries populations is dependent upon a knowledgeable society invested in the efforts to provide for wildlife access and habitat protection.”

McCain has stood up for whales over the years. In 2001, he cosponsored a resolution that called for parties involved in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to oppose all efforts to reopen international trade in whale meat or to downlist any whale population. In 2005 and 2006, McCain cosponsored a resolution encouraging the International Whaling Commission to oppose commercial whaling.

In 1999, McCain sponsored legislation requiring study of the habitat of the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope, which has a population in his home state of Arizona. Congress had allocated 2.7 million acres of land in the Southwest to the Department of Defense, which conservationists feared would put the pronghorn in danger. McCain’s bill mandated that the Interior and Defense departments study the transfer and determine the best natural-resource manager for the range.

But enviros have been alarmed by McCain’s actions related to another endangered species in his home state: the red squirrel. In the late ’80s and the 1990s, McCain was a tireless advocate for building the Mount Graham International Observatory in southeastern Arizona, despite concerns that it could threaten an endangered red squirrel population. Work on the observatory had been delayed over concerns about the squirrels and whether it would encroach upon land sacred to local Native Americans, and McCain called upon the Government Accounting Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, to study the project.

Former GAO manager Joe Gibbons told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that McCain interfered with the agency’s work, “going bananas” and “steamrolling the GAO” in order to get the project approved. There were also reports that McCain threatened the job of U.S. Forest Service Supervisor Jim Abbott, whom he blamed for the slow movement on the observatory, allegedly telling Abbott he would be “the shortest-tenured forest supervisor in the history of the Forest Service” if he didn’t help move the project forward. McCain denied making the threat, and in 1992 the Senate Select Committee on Ethics found that there had been “no impropriety” on the part of McCain regarding the observatory — though an internal GAO note from 1990 refers to McCain’s “admitted threat.” The observatory was built, and its optical telescope, the world’s largest, began operating earlier this year. The squirrels, meanwhile, remain endangered.

In 2003, McCain voted against an amendment to limit Defense Department waivers under the ESA. He voted in 1995 to prohibit the addition of any new species to the endangered species list or designate new areas of critical habitat under the ESA, and in 1996 supported a measure that effectively continued that moratorium.

McCain has expressed support for keeping four dams along the lower Snake River in the Pacific Northwest, though many scientists say the dams are a major detriment to endangered salmon species. McCain cited concerns about energy security and climate change as reasons to keep the dams. He did, however, address the need for better fisheries management programs to protect salmon in this video interview with Outdoor Life.

Wildlife advocates are more worried about Sarah Palin than they are about McCain. As governor, she sued the Interior Department over its decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species, expressing concern that the listing would impair oil and gas development in Alaska. According to emails released via a public-records request, she lied about the opinions of Alaskan state scientists on the listing.

Palin has also opposed efforts to protect Cook Inlet beluga whales, a genetically distinct population located only in this Alaskan inlet. Environmental groups have been calling for a listing to protect the whales; Palin has urged the federal government not to make the listing, again citing threats to the oil and gas industry. The feds this month declared the whales endangered.

Barack Obama:

Barack Obama hasn’t been in the Senate long enough to rack up much of a legislative record on endangered species, but he has made a few notable comments on the campaign trail. The Obama campaign in August came out against Bush’s proposed ESA changes. “This 11th-hour ruling from the Bush administration is highly problematic,” said spokesperson Nick Shapiro. “As president, Senator Obama will fight to maintain the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act and undo this proposal from President Bush.”

On the issue of salmon and the Snake River dams, an Obama spokesperson said the candidate “believes all efforts to restore habitat must be exhausted before dam breaching is considered.” Said Obama in a statement, “Implementing a meaningful salmon population recovery plan will be a key environmental priority of my administration, and I support efforts to create a salmon recovery plan that balances all of these important environmental, agricultural and renewable energy interests.”

The Humane Society Legislative Fund has endorsed the Obama-Biden ticket, citing, among other things, its fear that electing Sarah Palin “could mean rolling back decades of progress on animal issues.”

Also on the subject of critters, a crowd member at a town-hall meeting in Las Vegas earlier this year shouted to Obama, “What about animal rights?” To which Obama responded, “I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other. And it’s very important that we have a president who is mindful of the cruelty that is perpetrated on animals.”