American Elephants

Endangered, Threatened, And Extinct Species vs. Bureaucracy. by The Elephant's Child

the utah prairie dog cynomys parvidens is a federally threatened mammal species found only in parts of souther Utah

The Endangered Species Act became law on December 28, 1973, forty years ago.  A law intended to conserve species and habitat has meant recovery for less than 2% of the approximately 2,100 species listed as endangered or threatened, but as an industry for enriching lawyers and environmental activist groups it has been remarkably successful. Benefiting the environment? Not so much.

The law was well intentioned, but was meant to depend on science and data. The bureaucrats in charge have administer the law poorly and ignored provisions designed to promote good science and good sense. In the late 1970s, officials erased the distinction between different levels of endangered species listings. Originally it was only when an animal or plant was labeled “endangered” — on the verge of disappearing — that landowners were hit with heavy regulations, including prohibitions on activities that could “harm” or ‘harass” the species. The Carter administration extended these restrictions to species that are “threatened” — in trouble but not facing extinction.

It is not easy to tell when a species is “endangered.” Wild animals prefer to avoid humans, which makes it hard to count them. And if there is only a small population here, is there another on the other side of the mountain? Animals move in response to food.  Animals have predators. It is very, very complicated.

Polar bears were supposed to be “endangered” but they found enough to call them “threatened,” but those designations were based on flawed predictions of melting Arctic Sea ice. The globe warms and cools in natural cycles and the bears have done fine through both cycles. Emperor penguins were supposed to be heading toward extinction in the Antarctic — again based on predictions of vanishing ice. The predictions have been wrong, the globe has not warmed for over 17 years. In 2009, the Beverly herd of Caribou which numbered over 200,000 a decade previously could not be found. But a more diligent search turned them up right where the aboriginal elders said they would be.

If there is a project that environmental activists don’t like, they will fan out over the land involved, searching for a species that might be useful to delay or halt the project.

In Cedar City, in southwest Utah, Endangered Species Act regulations have given the Utah prairie dog the run of the town since it was listed in 1973. The rabbit-size rodent is now listed as “threatened” even though there now seem to be around 40,000 in the area. Residents cannot take measures to control the population nor even try to relocate the animals to federal property. Federal regulation is not amenable to common sense. Homeowners’ yards are pockmarked, mounds and tunnels on airport property create real hazards on runways and taxiways. At one airport hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to prevent prairie dog infestation.

Small business owner Bruce Hughes bought a 3.4 acre parcel to develop. “Then the prairie dogs moved in,” making it impossible to use the property productively.”If I killed even one, it would be a $10,000 fine and five years in federal prison. I could rob a convenience store and get off easier.” A lesson in small government where legislation should be made as close to the people concerned as possible.

Many of the most damaging Endangered Species regulations come from federal “biological opinions” issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife or NOAA staff. Man-made drought in the San Joaquin Valley came from a “biop” that claimed that irrigation harmed a tiny fish, the delta smelt. To protect the smelt, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered severe restrictions on water deliveries by government water projects. At the height of the man-made drought, hundreds of thousands of acres went fallow, and unemployment in some communities reached 40%. And with so many acres lying fallow in the great Central Valley breadbasket, the cost of your groceries went up.

If the law is to be retained, its execution needs drastic reform, reliance on poorly informed science needs to stop, and some consideration needs to be paid to the jobs and communities involved. If you are interested, enter “Not Extinct” in the search bar over Bob Hope’s head. Seems that nearly a third of supposedly extinct species aren’t, which is good news indeed.


The Fight Over Forests, Owls, and Myths of Nature by The Elephant's Child

                                                                                                photo by Gary Braasch

This cute little fellow is a female Northern Spotted Owl. She’s around 16 ” long, and in trouble.  And she has been trouble as well. Back in the 1980s, before the owl was listed as a threatened species, nearly 200 sawmills were found in the forests of Oregon, and as many in Washington. The Oregon mills were churning out eight billion board feet of federal timber every year. Today, there are less than 80 mills operating. Mills dependent on federal timber have closed, the rural communities which depended on the mills have declined and unemployment in many Oregon counties exceeds 20%—double the national average.

First they said that spotted owls could only nest in old-growth forest, and there were special efforts to see that old-growth was not logged. Then it was discovered that they lived in young forest as well.  Despite a 90% cutback on harvesting on federal lands, the population of spotted owls continues to decline. Was the whole law a fraud?

In 2002, the Biscuit Fire in southern Oregon and northern California burned 500,000 acres, cost $150 million to fight, and destroyed $5 billion worth of timber.  It also killed an estimated 75 pairs of spotted owls. Unmanaged forests have become immense fire traps as the recent fire in Arizona and New Mexico demonstrated.

Washington State listed the owl as endangered in 1988, and began working on a recovery plan. The same year, Oregon Wildlife Commission reaffirmed the owl as threatened and considered protecting it on private lands under the state’s Forest Practices Act. What is the trade-off between owls and people?

The final Revised Recovery Plan, issued on June 30, 2011, calls for expanding protections for owls beyond the nearly six million acres currently set aside.  It also calls for the “removal” — shooting— of hundreds of barred owls. The barred owls are a larger and more adaptable rival of the spotted owl that competes for nesting sites and prey, and sometimes breeds with the spotted owl. There’s no doubt that barred owls are having a negative effect on the spotted owl, but is it  competition or is it just a complication?

We don’t know much about endangered species. The Endangered Species Act has saved remarkably few species. Many species have gone extinct. Many extinct species turned out not to have been extinct after all.  It is extremely hard to count birds or animals in the wild. Should we allow nature to take its course? Assuming that the northern spotted owl  can be saved, how much cost is too much?  Do the preservationists have the right to tell property owners of private land what they may or may not do? There are enormous complications, many myths, and an uncertain way forward.

Environmentalists have a tendency to find an “endangered” species wherever there is a project of which they disapprove.  In California they declared the Delta smelt an endangered species and devastated California’s vast Central Valley, one of the great breadbaskets of the nation. The water for millions of acres of farmland was cut off, and crops and orchards died.  Was the Delta smelt really endangered?  Who knows? Was it worth the devastation to the Central Valley? Probably not.

How much will it cost to protect the northern spotted owl?  The Fish and Wildlife Service says the species could be rejuvenated over the next 30 years at a cost of about $127 million, but all that money will do nothing to help the depressed communities where still more timber will be off limits to harvesting. But the costs go far beyond that. The lumber for building has increased horrendously in cost, and plays no small part in the increased price of houses. We have learned how to use every part of a tree, so we are getting more value out of a tree than we ever did before.

People love the woods,  and want to keep them just the way they are, beautiful, pristine and wild.  But forests are a crop. Their growth cycle is just many years longer than other crops.  Trees start as seedlings, grow up, get old and die. Unmanaged forests burn, trees grow too thickly and need to be thinned. Environmentalists are often ideologues who are more interested in their political ideology than in the health of the natural world. Oddly enough, the increased carbon dioxide that environmentalists fear so, is a natural fertilizer for plants — including forests.

The Endangered Species Act is bad law.  Means well, but ventures heavy footed with giant steps into the woods. Private property owners have been known to cut down all their trees to prevent the possibility of having an endangered species on their land to destroy their use of their own land.  We have no accurate accounting of the costs of endless delays, lawsuits, and cancelled projects. Some are simply because environmentalists don’t like fossil fuels, but a desert tortoise is holding up a solar energy project in the California desert.

On the other hand there are wildlife biologists desperately trying to save species. What would we do with the Neanderthals today?

  • This article from the Smithsonian takes on the battle to save the spotted owl from the point of view of the environmentalists and those invested in the idea of global warming.
  • Professor Alston Chase’s 1995 book In a Dark Wood is a fascinating story of the battle over the spotted owl and old growth forests, assumptions about the environment and the lives of all who have been caught up in the battle. I recommend it highly.
  • Rebuilding the Ark is a new volume of essays examining the Endangered Species Act and how to reform the Act by a number of environmental law experts who evaluate its successes and failures.

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