The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon propose changes in the way it enforces the Endangered Species Act, greatly expanding the scope of its powers. In a move that has been expected for some time, reports columnist Alston Chase, Fish and Wildlife will ask for the power to list hybrid species under the Endangered Species Act.
The act specifically protects only distinct species, subspecies, and populations. (See "All Creatures Great and Small," March.) And soon after it was passed in the early 1970s, Fish and Wildlife drafted enforcement guidelines that exempted hybrid species from protection.
Environmentalists have always opposed that exemption. And that opposition has only increased over the last decade as advances in genetic testing of endangered species have made it clear that some politically popular animals on the endangered or threatened species lists are, in fact, hybrids.
The Minnesota timberwolf, for example, is a wolf-coyote cross. And the Florida panther is a cross between native panthers and South or Central American pumas that were probably accidentally introduced into the Florida habitat within the last century.
Things came to a head last December, after the American Sheep Industry Association petitioned Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan to remove the red wolf from the endangered species list because it is a hybrid. Genetic testing has shown that the red wolf is just a mix of wolves and coyotes. (Coyotes are so common and are such pests that the federal government pays hunters to kill them.)
If the hybrid policy isn't changed, Fish and Wildlife could be forced to remove some of the most high-profile animals from the endangered species list. Environmentalists worry that removing popular animals could weaken support for the Endangered Species Act as a whole.