Hope in sight for ESA reform

Mar 9, 2012

Cross your fingers; the Endangered Species Act (ESA) may be getting a much-needed reworking soon. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) recently submitted a list of proposed reforms to the aging ESA which may improve transparency, efficiency, and the local involvement of ranchers and farmers in listing proceedings.

Following December testimonies regarding the misuse of ESA, Federal House Resource Committee Chair Doc Hastings, R-WA, sought recommendations for reform. The committee’s interest in reform recommendations was called encouraging by NCBA. Together with the Public Lands Council (PLC), NCBA has submitted a list of recommendations for improved transparency, more delineated jurisdiction, and more efficient operations, among other things.

The act, which has not been reauthorized since 1988, has been the bane of many ranchers and farmers. ESA was initially drafted in 1973 to protect threatened and endangered species and their habitats. Unfortunately, it has made little headway in this effort despite its near 40-year life. NCBA president J.D. Alexander pointed out that less than 2 percent of listed species have recovered since ESA was created.

Abuse of the ESA

The act has more often been used as a political weapon by those with anti-animal ag agendas. This is one of the big complaints against the act. In December, rancher/attorney Karen Budd Falen testified before Hastings’ committee on how animal rights extremists have exploited ESA in their efforts to curtail livestock activities on both public and private land.

“Livestock producers have had to bear the brunt of countless lawsuits brought by environmental extremists whose intent is to end animal agriculture,” said Alexander in an NCBA newsletter.

Examples abound of the abusive and economically destructive uses to which ESA has been put.

The ESA-driven 1994 Northwest Forest Plan and the spotted owl debacle is still being felt. Not only did the plan effectively destroy the logging industry in the area, but the plan did not have its intended effect. Spotted owl populations have continued their decline despite the efforts. As recently as March 6, the continued decline of the spotted owl has led the Obama administration to consider shooting the species’ competitor, the barred owl, to provide less competition.

In 2001, Farmers in California and Oregon had their irrigation water cut off for years in the effort to save three species of small fish. Since the actions, the fish populations have not improved appreciably. The population of farmers in the area has been irreparably harmed, however.

The ongoing ESA controversies regarding the listing of wolves, prairie dogs and sage grouse need hardly be mentioned for their widespread impact on ranchers.

For many, one or all of these species and the fallout of their listing or potential listing is a reality of daily life.

Lawsuits pushed forward by environmental groups like the Western Watersheds Project seem to pop up daily to aggravate the issues.

Another complaint against ESA is that it, along with the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act (CWA), has allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to increasingly extend its jurisdiction beyond its intended charter. CWA especially has been combined with ESA to inflict extensive fines and legal action against ranchers.

Recommended reforms

In a letter to Hastings, Alexander and PLC President John Falen outlined their recommended reforms to the ESA. Of primary concern on the federal level is the use of third-party-reviewed, science-based listing decisions. On this matter, a call for greater transparency is recommended where research both in favor of and against listing of a species be made available to the public.

Improved transparency is a big focus in NCBA’s/PLC’s recommendations. Among transparency efforts, the groups recommend responsible agencies post full lists of threatened or endangered species, lists of species under consideration, results from five-year reviews, litigation costs and other expenditures made for the conservation of species, and lists of final and proposed regulations under ESA.

Other transparency reform recommendations from NCBA and PLC include economic impact studies being conducted and posted online prior to any new listing, and federal lands grazing permitholders must be included in deliberations on actions which may impact their livelihood.

Yet another area of reform concern for NCBA and PLC is the issue of efficiency with ESA and enforcing agencies. Simplified delisting or “downlisting” are needed, and the letter suggests all recovery plans include actionable delisting criteria. Grants for private landowner efforts and voluntary alliances between local agency representatives and landowners/public land users are also on the list of recommendations.

The full letter and list of recommended reforms can be found in PDF form on the NCBA website, BeefUSA. org, with search phrase “ESA priorities.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor