Since it was passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act has been all but untouchable by members of Congress, who consider amendments to the law with the same trepidation they would if they were climbing over an electric fence.
It’s not that the ESA is perfect — far from it. Rather it’s fear of retribution from environmental groups who see the law as their meal ticket and a weapon they use against anyone who doesn’t share their enthusiasm for shutting down economic activities across the West to “save” local populations of various species.
That’s why an effort by the Western Governors’ Association is so interesting. The top elected officials in the western-most 21 states and three Pacific territories — Republicans and Democrats — took on the challenge of studying the ESA to determine how they could make it work better.
Headed by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, the association first invited people from around the West to talk about the law. The governors’ recommendations are the result of those initial conversations and “drilling down” to develop ideas for addressing the law’s shortcomings.
It was not easy. The ESA is complicated and riddled with strict deadlines. In fact, the deadlines are part of the problem, the governors found. They were added in 1982 and have provided environmental groups with the hammer they wanted to force the federal agencies to pay them whenever they miss a deadline.
The governors recommended that the deadlines be made more realistic. They also recommended the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service be allowed to prioritize petitions for species of concern. Those species that are already the subject of on-the-ground conservation efforts would be a lower priority than other species that are not being helped. This would allow time to determine how any conservation efforts are working before the USFWS jumped in.
Such recommendations represent a well-thought-out starting point for making the ESA better and more effective.
They “would require agencies to consider conservation efforts and give them time to work,” David Willms, a policy adviser to the Wyoming governor, recently told the Idaho Water Users Association’s water law conference.
Regardless of its intentions, the ESA overloads federal agencies, exposes them to needless lawsuits and prevents wildlife and land managers from using all the tools at their disposal to do their jobs.
Getting rid of the ESA, however, is probably not realistic, since every environmental group would most likely hit the panic button at the mention of repeal.
But the case the Western governors make for judiciously modifying the ESA to make it more effective — and ultimately save more species in need of help — is difficult for even the most ardent environmentalist to resist.