The federal government protects hundreds of species in danger of extinction--grizzly bears, bald eagles, even certain kinds of beetles and butterflies.
But last month, for the first time in the 20-year history of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service extended federal protection to a fly.
On Sept. 22, the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, found only at five sites in the vicinity of Colton in San Bernardino County, joined about 800 plants and animals on the list of endangered and threatened species.
Environmentalists praise the decision as a last-minute reprieve for the inch-long insect, noting that flies--like any other creature--serve an important purpose in nature.
"People think of flies as things that buzz around your home and lay eggs in your meat and give you maggots," said John Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's California biodiversity program. "That may be true of the housefly, but there are hundreds of fly species doing a lot of useful things out there that allow the ecosystem to operate properly."
But others bitterly denounce the fly's designation, saying it only proves that government protection efforts have gone too far. Colton's mayor says the decision could jeopardize the city's plans to develop a local enterprise zone, an area in which businesses would get state-guaranteed tax breaks and other incentives designed to encourage growth.
Elsewhere, business leaders fear that other flies will be declared endangered and used by environmentalists to tie up development projects nationwide. There are 25 species of insects on the endangered list, but the Delhi Sands fly is the first fly to receive federal protection. And two dozen other fly species are under consideration.
"I never thought I would see the day that flies have a constituency, but I guess they do today," said Robert Rivinius, chief executive officer of the California Building Industry Assn. in Sacramento.
The Delhi Sands flower-loving fly is far different from an ordinary housefly, entomologists say. Classified as a fly because it only has two wings, the orange, brown and black insect, like a butterfly, has an elongated proboscis to extract flower nectar. And its fast-beating wings allow it to hover like a hummingbird.
The fly once lived in a 40-square-mile patchwork of habitats throughout San Bernardino and Riverside counties, but commercial and industrial development have rapidly reduced its living quarters to less than 700 acres.
The insect lives in areas of fine, sandy soils that are sparsely vegetated with buckwheat and telegraph weed. Sharing the habitat are burrowing owls, coastal horned lizards, kangaroo rats and other animals, some of which also are believed to be threatened.
Scientists acknowledge that they know little about the fly's role in the ecosystem except that it pollinates phlox and other flowers. But they say its loss could be crucial to the habitat's survival.
The fly "is part of a community of plants and animals that are so well adapted to the area that that is the only place they can (live)," said UC Riverside entomologist Greg Ballmer, who filed the petition to have the fly listed as endangered.
Rick Rogers, an insect illustrator who brought the fly's plight to Ballmer's attention, said it would have been on the endangered species list long ago if it were not for the stigma of its name.
"Unfortunately, because it is called a flower-loving fly, people think of it as a Medfly or a housefly that needs to be swatted or sprayed and not studied and treated like one of the creatures that deserves to be on this planet," he said.
The fly, however, could not have picked a worse place to make a last stand.
Nearly all of its habitat is on privately owned land in a 10,000-acre enterprise zone in Colton, a blue-collar city with high unemployment. At least three acres of the habitat are on the future site of San Bernardino County's public medical center.
The Endangered Species Act prohibits anyone from killing, harming or harassing a plant or animal that is in danger of extinction. Violators can be fined up to $200,000 and sentenced to a year in jail. Private landowners sometimes can obtain a federal permit allowing them to build in the habitat of an endangered species, but they usually are required to compensate for the loss by improving or creating similar habitat elsewhere.
County officials say they do not expect the fly to hold up construction of the hospital. They say they are confident federal officials will grant them the necessary permits because they have already set aside three acres within the 60-acre site as habitat for the fly.
City officials in Colton, however, fear that the fly's new status may scare away private developers who had considered building in the enterprise zone.
"Here we have land that has all these amenities in place and this little fly over here is wreaking havoc," Colton Mayor Frank Gonzales said. "We're trying to . . . put people back to work and this little fly is killing us."
Although the fly can be found only in and around Colton, its listing as an endangered species has sparked debate far beyond. Critics say the listing of the fly proves that the time has come to overhaul the protection program.
Such an effort, in fact, is under way. The Endangered Species Act is up for reauthorization in Congress, and many bills have been filed to change it. Several of the bills call for "common sense" reforms intended to balance the act's conservation goals with the needs of private landowners.
"It can't come down to jobs versus the environment," said Sue Waldron, spokeswoman for the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Endangered Species Act and will play a key role in deciding how--if at all--it will be amended. "We can't get to the point where the choices are obliterating a species or having an economy go over the brink."
So far, about 800 species of plants and animals nationwide have been designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered or threatened. A species is listed as endangered if it is in danger of becoming extinct in all or most of its habitat. Threatened species are those likely to become endangered in the near future.
Nearly half the species under protection are mammals, fish, reptiles or amphibians. About 40% are plants. Of the 25 insects under protection, most are beetles or butterflies.
What is worrying business leaders far from Colton is that the designation of the Delhi Sands fly might boost the chances that more flies--and other types of insects not on the list--will be protected, posing a threat to development projects elsewhere. Among the species under consideration are the San Francisco forktail damsel fly, the Lake Tahoe benthic stone fly and the Tuna Cave roach, found in Puerto Rico.
"Originally the Endangered Species Act came about based on the need to save the bald eagle, our national symbol, as well as grizzlies, large animals that people know and love," said Robert Sutton, spokesman for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California. "Now, they're looking at saving a blind cockroach that lives in caves in Puerto Rico. We have to prioritize things. We can't afford this approach."
Rivinius of the California Building Industry Assn. says the Endangered Species Act has become an anti-business bludgeon: "It goes beyond protecting a species to other agendas--it has become a tool in the continuing effort to shut down growth and development in California."
Environmentalists disagree. The act, they say, has been used to save vital habitats, thus preserving a broad range of plants and animals that would otherwise disappear. The challenge, environmentalists argue, is to design development projects that permit economic growth and the survival of endangered species.
"We get into these crises because we're not planning properly," said Hopkins of the Sierra Club. "If we change the way we do our planning, both the natural environment and human beings would be much better off."
For the first time, federal authorities have designated a fly as an endangered species. Here is a look at the insect:
* Name: Delhi Sands flower-loving fly (Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis)
* Appearance: Orange-brown and black, with oval brown spots on lower abdomen.
* Length: One inch
* Habitat: Found at five sites in and around Colton, within an eight-mile radius in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The area, characterized by fine sands and sparse vegetation that includes buckwheat and telegraph weed, totals less than 700 acres.
* Relatives: The El Segundo flower-loving fly, a related species that lived in sand dunes in western Los Angeles County, was last seen in the 1960s and is believed extinct.
* Life span: Up to 10 days.
* Diet: Flower nectar
* Characteristics: Extracts nectar with a long proboscis; pollinates phlox and other flowers; flies close to the ground, hovering over plants like a hummingbird; lays eggs in the sand.