ADVOCACY:

Former FWS chief disappointed in Obama, but 'hopeful' for agency's resurgence

Jamie Rappaport Clark, the former Fish and Wildlife Service director who later this year takes over one of Washington's most influential environmental advocacy groups, Defenders of Wildlife, pledged to "be absolutely rock solid" in holding the Obama administration accountable for its decisions on endangered species and conservation.

And while agreeing with other critics that FWS has not done enough to protect imperiled plants and animals under President Obama, Clark believes the agency's problems stem from a near decade of poor leadership and budget cuts under the George W. Bush administration, and that its incoming director, Dan Ashe, can restore the agency's strength and vitality within the Interior Department.

"I expected more out of the Obama administration, but I am hopeful," Clark said during an interview this week at Defenders' headquarters. "I'd like to see a conservation mandate coming out of the White House."

Clark, 53, believes she had such a mandate as FWS director under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001, when roughly 65 new species each year were added to the Endangered Species List. By comparison, the Obama administration has extended ESA protections to roughly 32 species a year, while the George W. Bush administration listed about eight species annually.

Clark's career path could have peaked 14 years ago when she took over the federal government's top wildlife conservation agency. She had spent eight years fast-tracking her way up FWS's seniority ladder, from senior wildlife biologist, to deputy assistant regional director in the Southwest Regional Office, to chief of the endangered species division, to assistant director for ecological services.

But in 2001, she decided it was time to explore opportunities outside the government.

"Knowing that the incoming [Bush] administration was not likely to be as supportive of the environment as the one I served in, ... I thought I would most want to be somewhere where I could be the voice for the Fish and Wildlife Service and my former colleagues during a time I didn't think they would have it," Clark said.

After brief stints with the Nature Conservancy and National Wildlife Federation, Clark found her way to Defenders of Wildlife, where she was appointed executive vice president in 2004, overseeing a staff of roughly 160 scientists, lawyers, policy experts and membership coordinators in Washington, D.C., and 10 field offices from Alaska to Mexico.

During her seven-year tenure, Defenders has brandished its reputation as a champion for wildlife, often by litigating against Clark's former employer to maintain protections for birds, marine mammals and terrestrial plants and animals that remain at risk from human encroachment, shrinking habitat and other threats.

Battle over wolves

Perhaps no campaign has drawn more attention, or controversy, to Defenders of Wildlife than its stalwart support for recovery, reintroduction and continued protection of gray wolves to the northern Rockies, Great Lakes, Alaska and Southwestern regions, where they once roamed freely before being nearly extirpated across much of their range in the 20th century.

That fight continues today as federal and state lawmakers, including the Obama administration's Interior Department, seek to restore state management authority over gray wolves, including the legalization of state-sanctioned wolf hunts.

The issue is not just about wolves, but the integrity of the Endangered Species Act and the more than 1,200 species it protects, Clark said.

"We should not be legislating the Endangered Species Act," Clark said of the handful of bills proposed by Western members of Congress that would strip wolves of federal protections (Land Letter, Dec. 23, 2010). Such legislation, she said, could "open up the door for every time there is a conflict, let's legislate on it, and that is an incredibly dangerous precedent."

Clark said wolves may one day achieve biologically sustainable populations sufficient to delist them from ESA, but states with wolf populations must have transparent management plans in place for that to happen. And, she said, wolf hunts can be an appropriate management tool if done in a regulated environment to achieve biologically based goals (see related story).

"Wildlife management is wildlife management. I wouldn't want to prejudge the outcome of that," Clark said of sanctioned wolf hunts. "But the notion of sport hunting a species while it is protected by the Endangered Species Act is something that we do not support."

Defenders also continues to work with livestock owners and local officials to try to increase tolerance for wolves, especially in the northern Rockies and Southwest, where the animals are viewed by many as menaces (Land Letter, Oct. 14, 2010). And until recently, Defenders paid to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to wolf depredation. It phased out its compensation program as state-run programs were created to provide the same benefit to ranchers.

Gulf spill response

The past year also saw Defenders take a high-profile role advocating for wildlife and shoreline protections after the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion resulted in the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

A lawsuit filed last October by Defenders and other environmental groups charged BP PLC with harming 27 threatened and endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico, including sea turtles, whales, birds and manatees (E&ENews PM, Oct. 20, 2010). Defenders also joined a lawsuit against the former Minerals Management Service for failing to require a thorough examination of risks from exploratory drilling operations like BP's.

Clark, who traveled extensively in the Gulf Coast region during and after the oil spill, used the catastrophe to draw attention to the threats and opportunities facing coastal wildlife. The disaster also placed Clark shoulder-to-shoulder with her former agency colleagues as FWS dealt with one of the most severe wildlife crises in recent history, with dozens of national wildlife refuges in the path of the oil slick, including some of the nation's most valuable marsh and wetland habitats.

But the Deepwater Horizon spill had other, less visible impacts as well, Clark said, including testing the organizational strength and morale of FWS, which had already suffered the unexpected death of its director, Sam Hamilton, in a February 2010 heart failure during a snow skiing trip.

FWS sent employees -- even reactivating retirees -- from all over the country to respond to the Gulf of Mexico disaster, which meant other important tasks were delayed or simply not completed.

"It was absolutely the right thing to do," Clark said. "But I don't think we can underestimate what Deepwater Horizon did to rock the Department of Interior off its base. It disrupted the priorities, and frankly the recovery, of these agencies from the last administration."

Shaping the future

As Defenders maps its strategy for the future, Clark said one overarching theme would be shaping its priorities and programs around climate change, which is forcing biologists and wildlife managers to rethink how to achieve their goals.

Whereas before conservation biologists strove to return damaged wildlife populations and habitat to past conditions, now they must strive to help species adapt to an uncertain future.

"Climate change isn't just reshaping and changing the habitat, it's shuffling habitat type, it's shuffling species composition," Clark said. "So how do we move forward as opposed to return to?"

Clark said she was heartened by the president's pick of Ashe as a permanent director for FWS, noting his background as a scientist and his 15 years of experience with the agency, including seven years as the Bush administration's fish and wildlife science adviser. Among other things, Ashe helped develop FWS's climate change adaptation strategy and was chief of the the National Wildlife Refuge System (Land Letter, Dec. 9, 2010). .

"I think he'll make a fine director," Clark said.

Climate adaptation should be the top priority for agencies like FWS, Clark said. But such work could be compromised by other government decisions that affect how major economic sectors -- including energy and transportation -- respond to the climate threat. With so many self-identified climate skeptics in the new Congress, Clark said Defenders has its work cut out to educate members that a stabilized climate and functioning environment is vital to a thriving economy.

"The last Bush administration did a pretty fair job of making us believe that there's a choice: you either protected the environment or you grew the economy," Clark said. "Well, after the last eight years, I can assure you the environment was way worse off than what they had inherited. And oh, by the way, the economy was tanking."

Meeting such challenges is not just about animals or habitat for Clark. It is personal.

Clark's son, Carson, who is named for environmentalist and author Rachel Carson, came home from second grade one day and demanded she do something about climate change and save the polar bears.

"What is both really frustrating and motivating for me is that for the first time, the next generation, my 11-year-old son, will inherit a much more compromised environment than I have," Clark said. "That's just unacceptable."

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