Pete’s Comments: ESA needs improvement

The Utah prairie dog is a regional subspecies of everyone’s favorite range pest. The subspecies is listed as threatened under the ESA and has since become a nuisance to private landowners as well as public lands ranchers.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been a dangerous piece of legislation since it was created in 1973. It’s been amended several times along the way and there is an effort to do it again. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee, has put out a draft bill to amend the ESA.

Barrasso’s amendments come from work done by the Western Governors Association (WGA) over the past three years. The WGA includes 19 western states and works on issues of the West. This is a bipartisan group and has worked through a set of communication protocols to effectively conduct work sessions. They identify areas of bipartisan agreement, propose actionable recommendations, and identify obstacles to their proposals. 

Bottom line: They get results.

The current ESA reform initiative was first proposed by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead when he became WGA chairman. I can’t think of a state that has had more experience with the effects of ESA over broad landscapes. Wyoming has endured the re-introduction of grey wolves, expanded the greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population, and was a leader on sage-grouse conservation efforts. 

Some of these ESA listings in the West have had the potential to affect thousands of square miles of federal, state, and private property. Do you remember the listing of the Utah prairie dog (a sub-species of a common pest)? Ever since it was protected as threatened, the rodent has taken over the town of Cedar City, UT to the point that development of private land is a problem. 

And don’t forget the issue with the feral horses, which Congress felt a special law was required to protect. Some environmentalists want the horses listed under the ESA too, despite the fact they are a non-native, almost invasive species.

It’s kind of strange how some of these environmentalist groups measure the effectiveness of the ESA. Even though only 1.3 percent of the over 2,000 species listed have been removed from the list because they reached recovery goals, environmentalists tout the fact that over 99 percent of the species list have not vanished the face of the earth as evidence of the ESA’s effectiveness. 

Not disappearing is their measurement of success here. But is preventing extinction, rather than allowing species to recover and flourish, the goal of the ESA?

Some environmental activist groups are going bonkers over the proposal to amend the ESA and have been sending out overly dramatic press releases. You know who they are. Barrasso says his proposed amendments are meant to enhance to ESA, not damage it, as these extreme environmental groups would have you believe. Luckily, other well-known environmental groups like the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy are in support of and have endorsed the amendments.

When you have a split in the activist groups, it’s time to strike and strike hard. This may be the best opportunity to fix this dysfunctional law.

Barrasso’s proposed amendments would essentially give the states and local governments more weight in the decision-making process and recovery plans. Additionally, they encourage the use of best available commercial science and to provide flexibility in active management plans. They would like to codify a funding mechanism to use dollars more efficiently and reduce duplication. 

The proposed amendments would also extend the timeline between when a listing petition is received and when decisions are made, prioritize decisions according to species vulnerability, and avoid litigation from environmental groups that prefer that avenue. They want the experts to make listing decisions not the courts. They would also like to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act, though there is already an effort being made elsewhere towards that goal.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the plan is to give the secretary of interior the ability to veto any recovery plan that doesn’t seem practical or wise. We’ve certainly had plenty of those. Neither the Department of Interior nor the Fish and Wildlife Service have the man power to manage or enforce recovery plans. They prove time and again they can’t do the job without local support. 

It’s clear the law isn’t working very well, and change is needed. It really has an abysmal track record when you measure effectiveness as “successful recovery” rather than “not failing.” The current situation tells me not many folks are serious about the law, they are just placating the law.

Everyone wants healthy lands and healthy ecosystems. Bio-diversity is good. But the law can go too far, and folks must get realistic about the end game when recovering species and creating healthy habitat.

Any effort involving the ESA must involve local stakeholders just as Barrasso and the WGA have argued. The sage-grouse initiative is a perfect example how federal, state, local agencies, and the community at large, can collaborate to solve a problem. Everyone can work together to reach effective, efficient results if they are honest about their end game. — PETE CROW


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