Skip Navigation

Species Search:

Nature Watch: Everything from Armadillos to Zebra Butterflies

Slow Motion

Some career advice for the would-be conservationist: Choose another profession if you're the impatient sort. Barriers abound, and success, when it occurs, is often incremental. As an example, look at efforts to protect a threatened sea duck that breeds in Alaska.

The Steller's Eider is a small, swift bird that dines on crustaceans, insect larvae, and aquatic plants and their seeds. The adult male, with its white head and black back, could pass for a distant cousin of the penguin. Of the three populations of Steller's Eiders known to exist, two breed in Russia and one in Alaska. It's the latter group that most interests conservationists, who claim that areas crucial to its survival need federal protection.

In order to obtain that protection, though, the conservationists first must sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their lawsuit, filed last March, ended in an out-of-court settlement several months later that required the FWS to make critical-habitat determinations for the Steller's Eider.

Another several months pass -- it's now March 2000 -- before the FWS announces that critical habitat has been proposed for 17,000 square miles of land and 8,500 square miles of marine waters. Good news, but the process is far from over. And even if the habitat is deemed critical, the protections offered the Steller's Eider will be limited. According to the FWS, "A designation does not set up a preserve or refuge, nor does it affect the activities of citizens engaged in private activities on their land. Rather, its sole impact is that federal agencies must consult with the service on activities they take, authorize, or fund that might affect critical habitat. Activities on private or state lands that do not require federal permits or funding do not require consultation."

Still, conservationists are optimistic. "We're relatively pleased," says Brendan Cummings, one of the attorneys who handled the case. He believes the biggest impact will be on oil development on Alaska's North Slope, a breeding area for perhaps as many as a few thousand Steller's Eider. Looking farther ahead, Cummings hopes the critical-habitat designation will aid efforts to ban the use of lead shot by duck hunters. "Decades of hunting have polluted the waters, and chronic lead poisoning is now common among waterfowl there." But that's another battle, Cummings concedes, with its own lawsuits. Like most experienced conservationists, he knows to take these matters one step at a time.