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Protecting the sage grouse from the Endangered Species Act

One could debate whether the recent recommendations by Governor Bullock’s Greater Sage Grouse Advisory Council went too far to protect the bird or not far enough.  There certainly have been concerns expressed from both camps.  However, one thing is certain, the best way to protect the bird, and the people that share its habitat, is to keep the sage grouse off the Endangered Species list.

The Endangered Species Act passed congress in 1973 in order to increase protection for, and to provide the recovery of, vanishing wildlife and vegetation.  Once a species is listed, powerful legal tools are available to aid its recovery and protect its habitat.  Therefore, over the past 40 years, ESA has been viewed as an obstacle to continued human use of resources within protected areas on federal and nonfederal lands.  Additionally, declining species have become proxies for broader ecosystem conflicts, adding further to the controversy. 

Under the Act, species are to be listed as threatened or endangered based solely on the best available science, without regard to economic considerations.  In addition to entire species, distinct population segments may also be listed as threatened or endangered. 

As of December 2013, a total of 1,268 species of animals and 877 species of plants were listed as either threatened or endangered, of which the majority occur in the United States.  A total of $1.4 billion was spent in 2011, on behalf of listed species.    

An annual expenditure of $1.4 billion is a lot of money.  Are species protection and restoration working?  The answer to this question depends upon what is measured.  The major focus of the ESA is the recovery of species to the point at which ESA protection is no longer needed. 

Over the past 40 years, 58 U.S. and foreign species or distinct populations have been delisted.  Of the 58 only 30 were actually recovered.  Ten species became extinct; seven were dropped off the list because of classification revisions and 11 species dropped off due to original data error or legislative actions.  Of the remaining 1200 species, only 35 have been reclassified from endangered to threatened.

A 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) only spent half of its recovery funds on the highest-priority species.  A subsequent December 2008 study found that almost one-third of all recommendations made by Congress to strengthen ESA implementation over the previous 10 years had not been implemented.  For instance, the FWS had not clarified the role of critical habitat and how and when it should be designated, nor had the agency periodically assessed expenditures on species in relation to their relative priority.

The ESA requires that a species’ status determination be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”  In several situations, legal, economic, and social disputes have resulted from this sole focus, including species that live in Montana, such as the bull trout, grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and wolves. 

The fact that the ESA has failed to recover species has not gone unnoticed by Congress, resource managers, and the public-at-large.  Several attempts to amend the Act have come and gone over the years.  Even in this current Congress there are six bills that either amend or restrict regulatory provisions.  These may evaporate by the end of the year as well.

In the meantime, if Montana’s sage grouse are determined to be in peril, then taking steps to keep them off the Endangered Species list is important to the wellbeing of the bird and the people that share its habitat.  The concerns whether the recommendations went to far may be legitimate.  However, until Congress seriously addresses the failure of the Endangered Species Act to recover species, the ESA is no place for any species in jeopardy. 

On behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association, I am Julia Altemus, thanks for listening.

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