Tucson Q&A with Kierán Suckling

T Q&A 

Kierán Suckling, animal defender

Kierán Suckling is the outgoing director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. Last week, the center joined with celebrities such as biologist E.O. Wilson, authors Barbara Kingsolver and Charles Bowden, and actor Martin Sheen to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list 225 species as endangered--the largest petition in the history of the Endangered Species Act. For info, check out biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/ programs/bdes/cp/index.html.

What's this petition all about?

The federal government has a waiting list on which they place species in limbo rather than protecting them under the Endangered Species Act. Species are typically on this waiting list for 20 or even 30 years. Our petition focused on moving all the species on that waiting list to the Endangered Species List. And that creates a legal requirement that they study these species and render decisions on their fate. Too often, they just sit on this waiting list with nothing done until they go extinct.

Would you say the Bush Administration has been the most hostile to the Endangered Species Act?

It's an interesting situation, because the problem is historic. There have been listing delays since the very beginning of the Endangered Species Act. There has been steady progress in the rate of listing from Nixon straight through to Clinton, but the Bush Administration has shut down the federal listing program. They have put fewer species on the list than any presidency in the history of the Endangered Species Act. So all the progress of the last 30 years has been just dumped in a garbage can by the Bush Administration, and that's because they know that once a species is listed, a host of funding, research and regulatory protection will kick in. So they view stopping the listing as sticking their fingers in the dike, and they can fight that one battle instead of a hundred conservation battles down the road.

How did you get President Bartlet on board?

The center has been in the listing business for about 15 years, and we've always been studying individual species and petitioning to list them. But we felt like the public only sees one species at a time, and they don't necessarily get to see the national crisis--it isn't about this or that squirrel or whale or hawk. It's about our whole wildlife in the United States. So what we decided to do for this project with the 225 species is to do them all at once, and then to get prominent scientists, artists and entertainers to join the project to draw as much attention as we can to the crisis. We got Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson, Martin Sheen and Barbara Kingsolver. So we assembled this star-studded cast to help us draw attention to the seriousness of this problem. Frankly, I think Martin Sheen is more presidential than anyone currently in the White House.

Is it true you guys are ghostwriting scripts for The West Wing this season?

Actually, there is an entire business dedicated to placing little political jokes and so forth into various TV shows. You'll hear little statements that aren't really part of the plot, or see a poster on the wall. Every show of The West Wing, there's a Defenders of Wildlife poster on the wall. All that stuff is placed there extremely consciously. So we are not above pulling whatever strings we might have to get our message placed on mainstream TV.

You're stepping down later this year to assume a policy post with the organization. What's up?

Come June 1, I will be ecstatically released from being executive director, which I have been for 15 years as the founder of the center, and at that point, I'm going to become policy director. What that means for me is I'll be doing a lot less managing, fund raising, deciding which staff member gets the corner office, etc., and I'll be able to focus more of my time on building political campaigns to better protect endangered species. Our assistant director, Chelsea Gwyther, will be taking over as director. I think she'll do a great job.

You and your wife, Lydia Millet, just had a little baby girl. How's fatherhood?

It's great. It's a first for both of us, and Nola is now 3 months old, and it's incredible. It's amazingly fun to watch her learn a new skill each day. It really is everything that people say it is.

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