By Dave Chadwick
Last week, several members of Congress announced plans to “fix” the Endangered Species Act. This was accompanied by the usual speeches, pleas and anecdotes. Politicians have been castigating the ESA for decades. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., a leader of the effort, has been making speeches since he was elected to Congress in 1994.
The ESA isn’t broken. Over the past 40 years, the law has functioned as intended to protect species that face imminent extinction. From the bald eagle to the American alligator to the gray wolf, the ESA has focused attention on animals that urgently need conservation. The law has rescued hundreds of species that would be gone from this Earth without it.
Saying that the ESA functions does not mean it is a pleasant process. No one likes seeing the federal government take over state wildlife management authority. The law’s strict regulations can impose significant burdens on landowners and other resource users. Developing plans to recover animals that have been pushed to the brink of extinction is contentious, expensive and time-consuming. Our current situation with the sage grouse illustrates the challenges of protecting wildlife once they become endangered.
The ESA was never meant to be easy. Nor was it meant to be the only tool in the conservation toolbox. It was created as a backstop to protect species that had declined so precipitously that they risked disappearing forever. It is an extreme measure because it is addressing an extreme problem.
In many ways, the ESA is like an emergency room for wildlife. Any doctor will tell you that the emergency room is a messy place, full of expensive procedures and tough choices. They will also tell you that preventive medicine is cheaper and easier than waiting for a disaster.
Fifteen years ago, some in Congress recognized the need for a better approach and created the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program. This effort was backed by a nationwide “Teaming with Wildlife” coalition of hunters, anglers, conservationists, businesses, landowners and government agencies, all of whom share a goal of preventing species from becoming endangered.
Unfortunately, Congress never followed through with any funding for the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program. Without high-priced lobbyists, wildlife fell victim to Beltway budget deals. Politicians told us they couldn’t afford to fund conservation, while corporate welfare and military spending ballooned.
Some members of Congress stepped up to prevent endangered species with a program called State Wildlife Grants. Montana’s Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus were champions of the effort. They fought to help Montana and every other state received a little funding to conserve wildlife before they become endangered. While other members of Congress talked about endangered species, Tester and Baucus took action.
Even though State Wildlife Grants has only provided a tiny portion of the promised funding, it has shown the effectiveness of early intervention to protect wildlife, restore habitats and collect data to inform better decisions. Some State Wildlife Grants projects have removed animals from the ESA. In other cases, smart investments have actually prevented listings.
Here in Montana, state Fish, Wildlife and Parks has used State Wildlife Grants to avoid several endangered species problems. Surveys of the imperiled northern leopard frog found larger populations than initially thought, which helped persuade federal authorities not to put the species on the endangered list. Habitat projects for the arctic grayling have led to formal agreements that will legally protect landowners from ESA restrictions. Similar projects have restored habitat and recovered wildlife around Montana.
All over the country, wildlife managers are using scarce funds to keep species out of the ESA emergency room. These successes don’t attract as much attention as “horror stories” about regulations. Hand-wringing about the ESA makes for good political speeches, but it doesn’t conserve wildlife or prevent the need for emergency intervention. When you underfund conservation, it’s no surprise that you’ll end up with more endangered fish and wildlife.
The ESA doesn’t need to be rewritten. If our elected officials really want to improve the law, they would finish their promise to fund preventive conservation programs like the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program and State Wildlife Grants. Smart conservation investments will reduce conflicts, save money and make the ESA work better for wildlife and people.
Dave Chadwick is executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation.