What I like about working on wildlife conservation is that there are always nice surprises.  Yesterday’s surprise was the news of the arrival in Connecticut of a cougar from South Dakota after a trek of over 1,500 miles.  Today’s welcome surprise was a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives to restore protections for endangered species.

On the overall subject of environmental protection, the mood in the House of Representatives lately is surly at best. For example, several months ago, in passing the spending bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, the House attached over a dozen bad policy “riders” designed to weaken protections for air, water and wildlife. This week, the House is at it again, with a proposed 2012 spending bill for the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency that cuts deeply into the funds these agencies need to operate and again removes a host of environmental safeguards.

But one of the provisions in this bill raised serious alarm bells.   It would have prevented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services from designating new species and critical habitats for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The ESA is the nation’s safety net for its most imperiled wildlife.  This law is one of the key reasons why treasured species such as the bald eagle (our nation’s symbol), Florida panther, American alligator, whooping crane and several populations of Pacific salmon remain on the planet today.  It also protects habitats that provide us with recreational opportunities, drinking water, flood protection and a host of other benefits.  More than 250 additional species, such as the wolverine and walrus, are heading toward extinction and may only survive if they receive scheduled ESA attention.

Some members of Congress don’t think much about the fate of wolverines and walruses.  All they know is that they dislike the ESA because it requires their big industry friends to slow down their activities while expert biologists identify threats to species survival and  find ways to modify projects to minimize those threats. When these anti-ESA House members inserted the noxious provision denying protections to species in trouble, Representative Norm Dicks and his allies in the conservation advocacy community leapt into action.  They reminded the House of Representatives of their fundamental obligation to protect wildlife for their children and future generations. And today, a bipartisan majority of the House listened and restored ESA protections.

Given all of the bad news coming out of Washington these days, this was surprising to me.  I like surprises.