J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — A new report concludes the potential listing of the greater sage grouse in Utah and 10 other western states is a "case study" on why conservation of species through litigation is a practice that fails both animals and people.
Released Tuesday by the Endangered Species Act Congressional Working Group, the report said the Endangered Species Act is akin to a regulatory straitjacket that thwarts good conservation work.
"The ESA is stuck in a litigation driven model. This outdated model hinders the boots on the ground conservation we should be harnessing to actually recover endangered species, not just spout flowery rhetoric about the law in the courtrooms," said Rep. Cynthia Loomis, R-Wyoming.
The report notes that the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to potentially list the greater sage grouse is being driven by a "mega settlement" in which federal agencies concede they are acting hastily to meet a deadline.
Such use of closed door settlements, it emphasizes, drives arbitrary mandates and deadlines that do little to promote the recovery of species.
The working group was formed in May of 2013 to examine issues related to the implementation of the Endangered Species Act 40 years after its passage.
The report contains comments and considerations from outside individuals as well as testimony from nearly 70 witnesses who appeared before the Working Group and House Natural Resources Committee hearings.
Thirteen members of the House of Representatives sit on the group, including Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
"The intent of the Endangered Species Act when it was first drafted was noble and the report acknowledges the continued need for the Endangered Species Act," Bishop said. "Unfortunately, however, since its introduction in 1973, the law has been co-opted by activist special interest groups as a tool to snuff out multiple use of our lands and resources."
Citing an "unacceptable" species recovery rate of 2 percent, the report details abusive examples of how the act fails in Utah and elsewhere, including:
Of the only 30 species of foreign and domestic plants or animals that have been "de-listed," 30 percent of those were removed from protections because they had been erroneously added to the list. With one Texas plant, for example, agencies said there remained only 1,500 plants, when in reality there were more than 4 million. It took more than a decade to get the plant off the list.
The discovery of Ute-ladies' tresses — a seasonal plant with a short growing season — in one area of Cache County requires developers to get a survey done throughout the county. Because it is best identified in August, if a developer misses the opportunity to survey that month, they have to wait until the following year to get a permit.
A dime-sized spider not seen in the San Antonio area for more than 30 years derailed the construction of a $15 million highway and plugged plans for a $11 million pipeline.
Two Utah counties and private landowners have been unable to control an influx of prairie dogs that have destroyed private lands because the federal government counts prairie dogs found on public lands, not private lands, for recovery purposes. The report said this interpretation cost one rural electric cooperative over $150,000 to airlift transmission poles around federal lands that have been designated for Utah prairie dogs, despite private landowners being able to obtain permits to kill them on nearby lands.
The report also points to the Fish and Wildlife Service's own acknowledgement that less than 5 percent of the 1,500 species on the list are actually improving and stressed that species management practices invoked by the act have increased the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Multiple recommendations are contained in the report, including overhauling the Endangered Species Act to ensure greater transparency, reducing litigation and encouraging settlement reform, empowering state and private landowners to have more say and demanding more accountability of the act's data and science.
Environmental groups said the report is less about reforming the Endangered Species Act and more about "gutting" it.
"Time and again Americans have voiced their support for the Endangered Species Act — they see signs of its success in every state. It's why we still have bald eagles, grizzly bears and wolves in the lower 48 states,” said Brett Hartl, the Center for Biological Diversity's endangered species policy director.
"Now these Republicans are asking Congress to tip this law in favor of profiteers and local politicians rather than the plants and animals it was designed to protect.”
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