Keep Up the Fight Against Extinction
(The Bloomberg View) -- Forty-five years ago, Congress passed the U.S. Endangered Species Act — quietly, near-unanimously and with no concern that any American would ever object. Everyone wanted to avoid the extinction of wildlife, to save the likes of the California condor, the Florida panther and the North Atlantic right whale for their “esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.”
But the new law proved to be more sweeping than lawmakers realized, protecting as it does every sort and size of plant and animal on public and private lands. It wasn’t many years before small wild creatures (see: snail darter) got in the way of big human plans, and complaints began.
This year, they’ve crescendoed, with private landowners and commercial interests pushing all three branches of the federal government to trim the ESA’s power. At stake is America’s long, proud effort to protect the essential diversity of natural life.
Here’s the good news: Species can be protected without imposing undue commercial costs. In 2015, conservationists, sportsmen and commercial interests collaborated on a far-reaching plan to steer mining and cattle-grazing operations away from the habitat of the greater sage grouse across 11 Western states. What’s more, there are ways to improve the ESA to encourage greater cooperation. But improvement doesn’t seem to be the intention of today’s critics, who are intent on imposing new, inflexible limits on species protection.
In Congress, various attempts are underway to strip or forestall protections for individual species, including the gray wolf, the northern spotted owl and the American burying beetle — each perceived to stand in the way of ranching, logging, or oil and gas drilling. Other proposed legislation would revise the ESA’s process of listing and protecting species to give more authority to the states.
The claim is that states can do the job better because they’re more aware of local conditions. The problem is that they aren’t equipped for it. Some have little or no state-law protection for endangered species, and most states happily cooperate with federal government for this purpose. The legal change is not about better rule-making. The aim is simply to let a handful of states push the ESA aside so that favored land development can go forward.
On another front, the Supreme Court will soon hear a case brought by Weyerhaeuser Co. challenging the government’s 2011 decision to designate hundreds of acres of timberland in Louisiana as critical habitat for the endangered dusky gopher frog. In fact, the frog doesn’t live there and couldn’t survive there unless the landscape were significantly modified — making this sound like just the kind of nuisance rule-making that federal agencies engage in for no good reason.
Not so: It’s more complicated than that. The land in dispute contains rare ponds in which the dusky gopher frog can breed, and potentially the kind of uplands in which it could thrive. Although the present landowners may never be persuaded to improve the habitat for the frog, the potential should not be forever lost. If the Supreme Court rules against the government, the creature’s best hope will be to cling to survival in neighboring Mississippi, permanently endangered.
Finally, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have made dozens of proposals to revise some of the ESA’s rules. While most of these are benign — some extend practices begun during President Barack Obama’s administration — a few stand to significantly undermine species protection.
For one, the administration proposes to begin publishing information about the economic consequences of listing species, because doing so “may be informative to the public.” But economic considerations should have no bearing on deciding whether a species is endangered. (What you do to protect an endangered species is another matter.) This change would also divert funds from more pressing tasks.
Another proposal, running parallel to the Supreme Court case, would steer the government away from designating land as critical habitat if the species in question doesn’t currently occupy it. This is something the Fish and Wildlife Service does extremely rarely — less than 1 percent of critical habitat on land is unoccupied, and only about 3 percent underwater. But, again, in some cases such conservation is essential to species’ chances of survival.
The administration also plans to stop automatically extending the same protections to “threatened” species — those at risk of becoming endangered — as are granted to endangered ones. In principle, this need not be worrisome: Rules can be written to shield individual species as needed. But the change would require another investment of scarce time and funding. In practice, more species would end up with too little protection. Next summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to list the monarch butterfly; the new rule would let the agency declare it threatened while failing to protect it.
Is protection of endangered species an endangered species? Little can be done to stop the Trump administration from going ahead with its proposed rules once the period for public comment ends. (A future administration could set things right, though for some species that might be too late.) The Supreme Court might well decide against preserving habitat for the dusky gopher frog. But when it comes to Congress, there are grounds for hope. Efforts to weaken the ESA have often failed in the legislature — because Americans in every part of the country strongly and consistently support the law, and recognize that species protection need not inevitably collide with economic growth.
Congress would better spend its time improving, not undermining, the ESA — by creating incentives for states and landowners to help protect species, and by better funding recovery efforts. Weaker protection for endangered species is not what Americans wanted 45 years ago — and a half-century of success hasn’t changed their minds.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.
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