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States Can Do a Better Job of Saving Endangered Species and Jobs, too

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was intended to protect the grand and noble eagles, bears, whooping cranes and condors, but it has turned into a tool for self-styled environmental groups to wipe productive human endeavors from private and public lands for the sake of protecting bugs, minnows, rodents and weeds.

During a recent online conference put on by Watchdog Wire, a network of citizen journalists, two authorities on the topic who come at it from the free market side suggested the best way to fight the ESA is to embrace its goal — saving species.

Greg Walcher, president of the Natural Resources Group, noted that in the history of the ESA there have been more than 2,100 species listed, but fewer than half of 1 percent have been taken off — 10 because they were extinct.

He and Brian Seasholes, director of Reason Foundation’s Endangered Species Act project, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been pressed by groups such the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Earth Guardians into listing hundreds of species as endangered. In 2011 the federal agency settled a lawsuit by agreeing to list 757 species by 2018. Among those is the greater sage grouse, whose habitat covers much of Nevada.

Walcher, a former Cabinet Secretary of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, said:

The endangered species protection and recovery was an enormously popular issue in our state, literally at 80-20 polling issue. People overwhelmingly support protecting and recovering endangered species and yet in the just concluded campaign every place we went it seemed like people were mad about it and he got asked about it on the campaign trail over and over and over again by angry people. It just struck us as sort of strange that people are so contentious and bitter, antagonistic and even litigious over issue that we supposedly all agree on.

So we decided to take a completely different approach in our state — nothing particularly new or different about what was going on in Colorado, but based on three really essential premises. One, that the Endangered Species Act is one of the most powerful laws enacted by Congress when some federal official you’ve never heard of who is five rungs below anyone accountable can declare a species to be endangered or threatened and that kicks in a whole body of federal law that just sort of seems to trump everything else — other federal laws and state laws and local operations and everything else.

Walcher said the state discovered — with respect to several specific species in Colorado — that there not only was no recovery plan in sight but no one ever really talked about goals or delisting criteria.

“In fact, they didn’t have the first clue what that criteria ought to be,” Walcher said. “We started actually with the endangered fish in the Colorado River, because it’s a series of water issues that affect the well being and economy of 30 million people in seven states and is a part of a 75-year-old battle over use the Colorado River in the most arid part of the county where you have to be able to divert water out of that river and use it or you can’t live there.”

Colorado engaged the federal agency in a years-long battle, before it unilaterally spent $5 million to build a hatchery dedicated to endangered fish.

“We began putting razorback suckers and bony-tailed chubs and humpback chubs and Colorado River pikeminnow back in the river by the hundreds of thousands,” Walcher said.

“There came an ah ha moment for me … The Fish and Wildlife Service literally tried to tell us it was illegal to do that,” he said. “They brought in batteries of federal lawyers to tell us the state wasn’t even allowed to possess an endangered species much less raise them in captivity and reintroduce them into the wild. It was all very political, so we responded by saying, well, OK then the governor’s going to have a press conference on the capitol steps and tell the world that you, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, are opposed to recovering endangered species.”

That stopped that.

Instead of confronting the agenda of environmentalists with arguments about how it affects human endeavors and the economy, Seasholes suggests states show the public how the ESA is harmful to its stated purpose. He noted how the law’s onerous penalties — “$100,000 and/or one year in jail if you harm one species, one egg, one chick, anything, or even if you harm its habitat” — provides a strong incentive for landowners to rid their land of endangered species and their habitat — often called shot, shovel and shut up.

Seasholes stated:

Those of us in sort of the free market, limited government camp tend to think about environmental issues, especially stuff like the Endangered Species Act, as issues of secondary and tertiary importance. I think that you really need to pay attention to this issue because the Endangered Species Act is going through a phase of unbelievable growth right now. It is going to start touching parts of the country it has never touched, start touching sectors of the economy that have been relatively untouched, especially oil and gas. The Endangered Species Act is increasingly being used as a regulatory means to do other things, whether it is water quality, air quality, global warming. There is global warming slash climate change push with endangered species. So I think that this is something our side has really not paid much attention to its detriment. …

But we have a winning had to play with this because the Endangered Species Act is so damaging and detrimental to its purpose of preserving endangered species.

Another example cited by Walcher was how the Forest Service wrote up management plans for forests in Colorado to protect lynx, which had not been found in the state in decades and never amounted to a population of more than 18 even then. But the agency intended to close roads and ban snow mobiles and stop logging, grazing and drilling.

The state imported hundreds of lynx and there are now more than ever before.

Though environmentalists and Fish and Wildlife bitterly opposed the restocking in private meetings, Walcher said, “I can tell you that not one time did any environmental organization or any federal agency ever publicly criticize us for it. … Who’s going to stand up in front of a room full of people and say, ‘You know I don’t really care about those fish I just want to control the water and stop growth in the Southwest.’ Or, ‘I don’t care about the lynx, I just wanted to stop logging.’ Or, “I don’t care about the Gunnison sage grouse, I just want to stop grazing and ranching.’ Nobody can admit to some other agenda, because the public wouldn’t be with them then.”

(A version of this column appeared recently in The Ely Times, Eureka Sentinel, Mineral County Independent-News, Lincoln County Record, the Elko Daily Free Press and the Mesquite Local News. Mitchell also blogs at 4TH ST8.)

[Header image from US Fish & Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest Region via flickr.com]

Thomas Mitchell

Thomas Mitchell is a former newspaper editor who now writes conservative/libertarian columns for weekly papers in central Nevada and blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/ Twitter: @thomasmnv

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