December 2014

Falling out of the ark

And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you, to keep them alive. — Genesis 6:19-20

It’s difficult to remember that the Endangered Species Act, today the target of fury and resentment, had nearly universal support when it was passed in 1973. It sailed through the U.S. Senate on a voice vote and was approved by the House 355 to 4.

“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed,” said President Richard Nixon upon signing the bill, which was a revamping and expansion of two earlier conservation measures, one passed in 1966 and one in 1969.

This was way, way back in the days when even Republicans unabashedly supported conservation and environmental protection, believing regulations that aided clean air, clean water, and healthy ecosystems were not travesties against humankind but measures to ensure a beautiful, livable world.

And even in Biblical times, God apparently believed that animals were worth preserving, since he directed Noah to save them all – not just the cutest and most cuddlesome – from the flood.

Today, however, there are numerous calls for either gutting or eliminating the ESA. Such cries were heard last month when the Gunnison sage grouse was designated as “threatened” under the act. And even people who didn’t come right out and say the act should go extinct erupted in howls of outrage over the bird’s listing.

Colorado’s governor and two senators, as well as Third Congressional District Rep. Scott Tipton, all decried the designation, promising a lawsuit and arguing that local efforts should be given more time to save the bird, whose total population numbers under 5,000 – four-fifths of those in one group near Gunnison, Colo.

The species now occupies 7 percent of its historic range, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the ESA. The half-dozen “satellite” sage-grouse populations, which are scattered across Southwest Colorado and Southeast Utah, are still in existence mostly because of transplants of birds from the Gunnison area. Even though local conservation groups have been working for a decade or more, the only place where they have had significant success in achieving a stable bird population has been around Gunnison.

People’s fears about the sage-grouse designation center on two key issues. First is the impact it might have on private property. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service says traditional farming and ranching activities will continue and that the “threatened” designation provides more flexibility than an “endangered” one, landowners are understandably worried that there will be severe restrictions on what they are able to do with their land.

This is not a foolish or trivial concern. There have been horror stories about how species listings have affected private property, and even though many of those anecdotes were demonstrably exaggerated for political purposes, others were based on truth. Private-property rights are a cornerstone of this nation’s greatness, so anything that might diminish them needs to be carefully considered.

The other big issue is how the designation will affect activities such as mineral extraction. According to the service, activities on federal lands or with a federal “nexus” (such as those receiving federal funding or requiring a federal permit) will require a consultation under Section 7 of the ESA. That obviously would apply to oil and gas drilling.

Does this mean, as some have wildly claimed, that that the designation will end all energy production in the local area?

Certainly not. The McElmo Dome area of Montezuma and Dolores counties contains possibly the richest source field for carbon dioxide in the world. Kinder Morgan isn’t going to pull out of here just because of an endangered-species designation. When a project might harm Gunnison sage grouse, the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to work with the project proponent to develop measures to “avoid, minimize, and mitigate” the impacts.

But it’s true that implementing such measures could mean delays in getting projects up and running, so this is not an unwarranted concern, either.

It would be helpful to the situation if our leaders – from the governor to county commissioners in the affected counties — would take a few deep breaths and try to view the situation calmly.

Contrary to some folks’ perceptions, the Fish and Wildlife Service is not on a “listing” rampage. In recent months, in fact, it has:

• Declined to list the wolverine as endangered or threatened;

• Declined to list the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a sub-species that lives in New Mexico and southern Colorado;

• Refused to include the Southern Rockies as well as key parts of Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon in its critical habitat for the threatened Canada lynx, a decision that has triggered a lawsuit by environmentalists;

• Revised its rule concerning the reintroduction of the endangered Mexican gray wolf to give more power to state game managers to kill wolves, a decision that was likewise decried by environmental groups.

These don’t appear to be the actions of an agency hell-bent on creating unjustified endangered-species designations and hamstringing economic development and private-property rights.

It’s widely recognized that the world is in the midst of an enormous wave of extinctions. Plants, birds, mammals, amphibians, and insects of all types are dwindling and disappearing, from African elephants poached for their ivory to monarch butterflies dying because the native milkweed on which they depend is being exterminated. As time goes on, more and more species are going to be proposed for listing, even in the local area.

However, the ESA has been in place 40 years, and while it remains popular with much of the general public, it is probably in need of re-examination. Protecting the richness and diversity of this nation’s wildlife is going to require an ESA that is truly functional and does not perpetually bog down federal agencies in litigation. The goal, however, must not be to get rid of it and let animals go extinct, but to make it work the way Richard Nixon and God intended it to (if that comparison is not blasphemous).

Many measures have been suggested that could make it more viable, such as providing genuine incentives to protect species and their habitat (more carrots instead of sticks), working to make sure that the burden of an endangered-species listing doesn’t fall on private landowners, and providing a steady funding source for habitat preservation.

Realistically, though, an Endangered Species Act without any teeth in it – or an ESA that says species will only be protected when a listing would have no adverse economic impact on anyone – simply could not succeed.

Earlier this year, a Congressional Working Group released a report and recommendations concerning the ESA. However, the group consisted entirely of a baker’s dozen of House Republicans, so their efforts had little credibility with anyone on the other side of the aisle.

What’s needed, instead, is a serious examination of the act by a nonpartisan panel that does not include posturing politicians. Ideally, it would be made up of biologists, representatives of energy and other industries, landowners with experience dealing with the ESA, members of different advocacy groups, even an attorney or two to advise on legal language. They would start from the premise that extinction is bad and should be avoided, but they would also have to agree that private property rights are precious and need to be honored.

Is such an effort likely to happen? Not in the near future. In the meantime, there will be listings and rumors of listings, lawsuits and threats of lawsuits, and fear and loathing any time anyone suggests that some poor bird or fish or mammal merits protection. Politicians will say whatever they think will garner them the most votes, while biologists on the ground struggle to keep species from disappearing.

We have to wonder what Noah would think of all this.