11/19 Editorial

We’ve frequently lamented the stubborn unwillingness of many major environmental groups to acknowledge good news on the environmental front, lest a retreat from the relentlessly apocalyptic script stop the donations from flowing and cause the media spotlight to turn away. So it’s only fair that we take note when a green group bucks those expectations and shows a reasonable side, as the National Wildlife Federation has on the subject of federal grizzly bear protections.

The Bush administration’s proposal to remove the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the endangered species list, based on its strongly rebounding numbers, naturally received a mauling from most green groups, which insist that the bruin is not out of the woods yet. The de-listing is “based on political science, not on biological science,” a spokesman for Earthjustice has said. Some groups are threatening to fight the de-listing in court, as they’ve fought the de-listing of the bald eagle and Yellowstone gray wolf.

However, NWF broke ranks with the usual suspects by striking a more reasonable tone, arguing that bear numbers have recovered enough that federal protections can be loosened and more management responsibilities safely handed over to states.

The federal grizzly program “achieved a singular success for the Endangered Species Act in terms of both the steps that were taken to rebuild the bear population and the program that’s been put in place after delisting occurs,” according to Tom France, a senior counsel for NWF. “It’s really an example of how the Endangered Species Act can and should work.”

Such optimism has created a rare rift among greens, by leaving most groups standing out on the lunatic fringe, living in an obvious state of denial.

This spat is about more than just bears, however. It reflects one group’s change of approach, aimed at protecting another potentially endangered species — the Endangered Species Act itself.

The ESA is deservedly under fire for being an extreme, rigid, out-of-control law. NWF doesn’t support the de-listing because it is getting cuddly with the Bush administration, but because it understands that ESA “success” stories are needed to counter one of the most effective arguments made by ESA detractors — that it isn’t actually saving species.

Most green groups have inadvertently strengthened such critiques by fighting tooth and claw against any de-listing, due to a reluctance to admit that anything might actually be getting better. And the lack of de-listings is fueling calls for an ESA overhaul.

“We are confident that the future of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone is bright,” Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Tuesday, in announcing the decision to de-list. “Our grandchildren’s grandchildren will see grizzly bears roaming Yellowstone.” And probably far beyond Yellowstone, we might add.

Grizzly de-listing will be a long and drawn-out process.

Bureaucratic inertia and legal challenges are bound to drag it out for years. However, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the eco-pessimists would, for once, refrain from obstructing and join in with the rest of Americans in celebrating an ESA success story, as the NWF has?

By doing so, these groups would not only be helping to rebuild credibility with a public that is growing tired of their boy-who-cried-wolf rhetoric, but might actually be strengthening the case for saving the ESA.