The Hotel California for wildlife
Sometimes in speeches, I have compared the endangered species list to the Hotel California, where “you can check out but you can never leave.” It is a short way of explaining the problem of a system that adds hundreds of species to the endangered list, but never takes any off.
When it comes to recovering endangered species, the federal regulatory approach is making no progress, despite vast expenditures of tax money and the ever more intrusive control of land. That’s why, as of today, the threatened and endangered list includes 2,390 plants, animals, fish, birds, and bugs. I say “as of today” because the list continually grows. The government has already begun the process to list another 29 species, officially calls 30 more “candidates” for listing, is obligated by court orders to review (and almost certainly list) another 362, and has received 136 new petitions from various groups wanting more.
In the entire 44-year history of the Endangered Species Act, barely 2 percent of listed species have actually recovered and been de-listed, making our most powerful environmental law one of government’s most dismal failures. Some of us have been citing this information for several years as evidence that something needs to change. Finally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency in charge of the ESA, is hearing that message, and openly talking about de-listing. But much of its activity doesn’t really change the underlying problem, just masks it in clever new spin.
Fifteen years ago when Colorado began to restock Colorado River endangered fish, and reintroduce lynx, ferrets, desert bighorn sheep and other species, we wanted the federal government to tell us when success could be declared. We wanted to know what the recovery plan was, and when de-listing would be accomplished. We discovered that very few federally listed species had any recovery plan at all. Today most of them do. That is progress, although most of the recovery plans focus more on habitat (land management) than on species populations, so it remains unclear when recovery can be declared, if ever.
Stinging from such criticism, national environmental leaders have a new strategy. They tout the tremendous success of the ESA by pointing out that it has prevented species from extinction (10 listed species have been declared extinct). Certainly, extinction would be an even worse failure than lack of recovery. But rather than comparing degrees of failure, we should be touting successes and celebrating de-listings.
That is why the Fish and Wildlife Service is making such a media splash with proposals to de-list gray wolves, grizzly bears, Florida manatees, and woodland caribou. But look more closely. Despite massive news coverage in the South, manatees were actually down-listed, not de-listed. Their status was merely changed from endangered to threatened, so they will still be protected by the full force of federal law. Even without the ESA, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, so there is no real change in anything. Grizzly bears are proposed for de-listing, but only for a distinct population segment in Yellowstone. Some gray wolves may be de-listed, but not those in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The agency trumpeted a great compromise by deciding not to list the sage grouse last year, but instead adopted draconian land management schemes that many westerners say may be worse than ESA enforcement.
Overall, the government has proposed to de-list 11 species and down-list four (of the 2,390 listed), most of them listed since the 1970s and 80s. That is still precious little progress to show for the embattled agency. That’s why Congress is again working on legislation to “reform” the ESA. Members should tread very lightly, though, because public support for the ESA remains very strong.
This is actually less a problem with the law than with the implementation. What is needed is not a massive rewrite, but a rifle shot at the Achilles heel of a broken system. It can be done either by Congress, or by the new administration, because it only requires a simple correction. Recovery goals and de-listing criteria need to be firmly established for all species. No species should be listed without a clear understanding of what would constitute recovery, and firm de-listing goals for all species already listed should be published soon.
State and local governments and private landowners would put huge resources into recovery if they thought it might relieve the regulatory burden they otherwise face. Then the feds might actually have partners, rather than adversaries, and the Hotel California would actually begin seeing departures.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.