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ESA Reform Battle Heats Up

by Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Quarterly, Summer 2005

One of SOSA's chief goals is to prove the need for ESA reform
by touting the act's dismal recovery rate.

Pocatello -- Ground is about to be moved on the long-awaited effort to reconstruct the Endangered Species Act to make it easier for private property owners to comply with and give them a financial stake in helping recover endangered or threatened species.

"The goal is simple" To modernize the act's recovery efforts and lessen its impact on humans.

"This thing is cooking. It's really on the fast track. It's going to hit the fan here (shortly)," says Tim Wigley, director of the Save Our Species Alliance, which is being financed by a coalition of groups involved with agriculture, energy, forestry, mining and developing to lead the ESA reform effort.

Those behind the push to overhaul the 31-year-old act hope to change it so private property owners have a financial stake in helping recover species.

They also want to give local and state governments a much bigger hand in ESA recovery efforts.

The push comes as welcome news to Idahoans who have been battling the effects of the ESA for years.

"The Endangered Species Act needs to be revamped," says Jerry Hawkins, president of the Salmon River Coalition, a non-profit group which helps landowners being sued by environmental groups over alleged ESA violations.

"These groups are costing the American taxpayers and landowners huge amounts of money. It's a huge cost and a burden, it's needless and it needs to stop."

There are currently 23 species in Idaho listed on the ESA. four more are candidates for listing.

Because of the election cycle, the battle will likely be won or lost before next April, Wigley says. "It has to happen before April 2006 or it's not going to happen," he says. With Republicans controlling Congress and the presidency, "Is there going to be a better time to make (changes) to this law than right now?" He says the ESA has had an onerous effect on private property owners, on whose land more than 80 percent of endangered species live.

One of SOSA's chief goals is to prove the need for ESA reform by touting the act's dismal recovery rate.

While 1,300 animals and plants have been listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, so far the act has a miserable record when it comes to actually recovering them.

Of those animals and plants listed, only 10 have been recovered, a recovery rate of less than 1 percent.

"That figure disgust the average person," Wigley says. Further, "people can't believe that act doesn't require a plan to actually recover a species," he adds.

As a SOSA talking points sheet eloquently puts it: "No one would take their pet to a veterinarian with a success rate of 1 percent. So, why are we entrusting our most vulnerable species to an act with no better rate?"

Meanwhile, the law has in many cases damaged local economies and impacted everything from economic development and jobs to school funding.

Wigley says proponents of ESA reform don't want to gut the act; they only want to make it easier to comply with and be effective in actually recovering species.

Any time a congressman talks about ESA reform, the majority of media outlets report it as though they want to gut the act, Hawkins says. "That's not the case at all," he says. "We're asking for a common-sense approach with logic put into these issues."

While the effort to reform the act may include changing its title to something like Species Recovery Act, the idea is unabashedly to bring relief to private property owners, some of whom have been overwhelmed and even devastated by the act's requirements.

One of the best examples in Idaho
One of the best examples in Idaho of the harm the ESA can cause is the damage done to a Custer County family's ranch. Two environmental groups sued rancher Verl Jones in 2001, claiming a stream diversion violated the ESA and killed bull trout.

After Idaho District Judge B. Lynn Winmill sided with environmental groups in 2003 and ordered a permanent injunction on the Jones diversion, the family's hay production dropped by 150 tons per year, almost bankrupting the ranch. Jones was also ordered to pay $36,000 for attorney fees.

Although the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision this year, ruling in Jones' favor, the damage was irreversible. Jones, 87, died last fall and family members and friends believe the stress of the case contributed to his death.

Jones "had some age on him" and the lawsuit may or may not have contributed to his death, says Hawkins, a close friend. But "it made his last few years on Earth miserable trying to deal with this and I know that personally for a fact."

Idaho ranchers don't have to be reminded about the impact the reintroduction of wolves has had on them. And the listing of snails in the mid-Snake River has impacted Idaho Power's operations, which in turn directly affects the 80 percent of Idahoans who get their power from the company.

Those who want to reform the act believe it should require economic impact statements accounting for the impact on private property owners.

Of course, actually recovering species and getting them off the list is also a major goal.

'Our goal ought to be restoration, not just throwing things up on the list," Wigley says.

Some of the things those pushing for ESA reform would like to see happen include:

Hawkins would like to see the law revamped to stop all litigation the day a species is listed. Not until a protection plan is finalized and funded and states and landowners have had an opportunity to implement it should lawsuits be allowed to go to court, he says.

To provide assurance to members of congress who may be straddling the fence on the issue because of worries about public opinion, SOSA did extensive research to determine how the public feels about ESA reform.

That included a telephone survey with 1,000 likely voters and 20 focus groups in 10 cities with an equal number of men and women.

While SOSA found the public supports the general premise of recovering species under the ESA, they also discovered people were appalled when confronted with the act's actual recovery performance.

"The public likes having the Endangered Species Act. It's just not working," Wigley says.

When asked which level of government is better equipped to recover species, 44 percent said state, 29 local and only 21 percent federal.

"Clearly, people feel local authorities have a better handle on recovering endangered species than the heavy hand of the federal government," Wigley says.

He says environmentalists are lying about the alleged success of the act. "We feel like this message can overcome that."

Wigley says SOSA plans to reshape the debate "to talk about it on our terms, not theirs. Our goal is to put them on the defensive and talk about the species themselves."

SOSA's goal is to $1.5 million, but it still expects to be significantly outspent by its opposition. No worries, he adds, because the facts and truth are on their side.

He says the partisan atmosphere in Congress right now is particularly nasty and the group is not sure if it will need the 60 votes required to break a filibuster in the Senate. But he believes they can get them if needed.

The House and Senate have held hearings across the country, gathering testimony on both the successes and failures of the act.

In its effort, those pushing for ESA reform may end up forming some unlikely alliances, Wigley says. That could include Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who, because of her alleged presidential aspirations, "wants to win some red states."

Regardless of where the senator stands on other issues, "If she wants to dance with us, we'll dance," Wigley says.

The stakes are simply too high, he adds, to not do everything possible to try to win a major victory.

"We have to win something this time," he says. "We've been incrementally eaten to death. The ESA need stop be modernized and brought up to date."

For more information on SOSA's efforts on-line visit

Sean Ellis
ESA Reform Battle Heats Up
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Summer 2005

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