Squirrel Slur Sparks Furor : Wildlifers Outraged by Lujan Talk

From Associated Press

Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., noting that a group of squirrels is blocking construction of a $200-million telescope, said Congress should weaken the Endangered Species Act.

“Nobody’s told me the difference between a red squirrel, a black one or a brown one,” Lujan said. “Do we have to save every subspecies?”

Lujan’s remarks prompted outrage from environmentalists today, who called him a “second-string James Watt.”

Officials of the National Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society called them “totally outrageous” and said the secretary demonstrated an “incredible lack of understanding” of the need to protect endangered species.


Lujan made the remarks Thursday at Mesa Verde National Park, near Durango, Colo., where he was attending a National Park Foundation banquet. They were initially reported today by the Denver Post.

Referring to the Endangered Species Act, Lujan was quoted in the newspaper as saying in an interview, “It is just too tough. I think . . . we’ve got to change it.”

Conservationists are blocking construction of a National Science Foundation telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona because of about 180 endangered red squirrels there.

Steve Goldstein, Lujan’s press secretary, said in Washington that Lujan had sought only to point out some “frustrations” he has had in enforcing the Endangered Species Act. He said Lujan wants Congress to “determine whether it is being implemented correctly” and is not suggesting how Congress should alter the law.

Goldstein said that Lujan believes that increasingly the federal law is being used “as a last recourse to stop economic development projects” and not specifically to protect endangered species.

But Jay Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation, called the remarks “totally outrageous” because they came from the Cabinet official whose job is to protect endangered wildlife.

Michael Francis of the Wilderness Society said the remarks “show Mr. Lujan’s incredible lack of understanding of biology and public policy.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, “one may only consider biological facts, not economic facts” when determining whether to place a species on the endangered species list, Lujan said. After a species is listed, “I am obliged to protect them wherever they exist.”

“Do we have to save (an endangered species) in every locality where it exists?” he asked.

On Monday, employees of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service told Lujan that the Animas-La Plata water project in southwestern Colorado could not be built because it would threaten endangered squawfish.

Lujan said the ruling on the squawfish created a dilemma for him, and he said he had ordered the employees to look for alternative solutions.

The $582-million Animas-La Plata project would provide water for four Indian tribes and irrigate southwestern Colorado and New Mexico farmland.

“By law, I am protector of endangered species, and by treaty, I am trustee for Native Americans,” Lujan said. The squawfish exist in many other places besides the controversial dam site, Lujan said.

Lujan said he might convene the Endangered Species Committee to review the squawfish case.