Endangered Species Act Hit at New Mexico Hearing

Published August 1, 2004

“The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has given wildlife very little to cheer about,” said Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), chairman of the House Resources Committee, at a June 7 hearing in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The hearing was held to highlight the ESA’s impact on the community and its economy. Citizens attending the hearing echoed Pombo’s sentiment and overwhelmingly called for changes to the act.

Failing to Protect

The ESA, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, gave the federal government the authority to identify endangered species and to impose regulations and policies aimed at conserving and recovering those species to healthy populations. But according to wildlife experts, the government has not saved a single listed species since the act was adopted.

A few species have been taken off the list, but they recovered for reasons other than the ESA and federal government efforts. The peregrine falcon, for example, was recovered through captive breeding by a private organization, and the bald eagle recovered largely because hunting the species was outlawed. “None of these species was recovered as a result of the ESA alone,” noted Pombo. “Their removal from the [endangered species list] is to be linked to other vital conservation measures and [other kinds of] human intervention.”

Since the ESA went into effect, more than 1,300 species have been listed as endangered or threatened. Only seven have been removed from the list because of recovery. That’s a success rate of less than 1 percent. Pombo noted, “If this were the state of American medicine today, there would be outrage.”

Citizens Express Frustration

Not only has the ESA failed in what it was intended to do, but it has affected ordinary citizens in ways few people imagined at the time the act was adopted. At the hearing, Joanna Prukop, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Energy, spoke of feelings of “doom and gloom” about ESA enforcement. Other speakers told personal anecdotes that confirmed Prukop’s impression.

Alisa Ogden, a farmer and rancher, testified, “In reality, it [the ESA] has become our worst nightmare. The human factor has been ignored in the decision-making process. In addition, the use of sound science is not encouraged in determining what species are in need of protection or the best method in protecting them. Too many times, [regulators’] personal agendas have taken precedence over common-sense decisions in regards to many species.”

Ogden said the act has had a “tremendous” impact on her family and her neighbors. “New Mexico’s livestock industry has spent well in excess of $500,000 in attorney’s fees alone to protect agricultural producers and their rights during the past seven years.”

Ogden’s frustration was echoed by Tom Davis, manager of the Carlsbad Irrigation District. He said the 1987 listing of the Pecos blunt nose shiner minnow as threatened has caused problems for area farmers.

“Critical habitat for the shiner was designated in the 70-mile reach of the river below the village of Fort Sumner,” explained Davis. “The river is wide and meandering.” The minnow’s listing burdened a vast area of land and impeded operation of the river’s Sumner Dam, yet shiner numbers have continued to decline, reported Davis. “Maybe we don’t understand enough about the shiner’s needs to manage its survival, not to mention delisting,” he said.

Designations Hurt Local Economies

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which oversees enforcement of the ESA, decides which species are listed, how much land must be set aside for critical habitat for those species, and what activities are permitted on land where these species might live. “Critical habitat” is defined not as land on which the species currently lives, but as any area that has characteristics essential to the survival of the species. A piece of property can be designated “critical habitat” if a species might have lived there at some time, or could possibly live there in the future. The construction of schools, hospitals, homes, and airports is often delayed or stopped by “critical habitat” designation even when no representative of the species has been found.

Jeff Harvard, president of Harvard Petroleum and former president of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, testified ESA issues affect not only construction projects, but all aspects of his business. “More and more time and energy is being drained from our everyday business activities to identify, analyze, evaluate, discuss, and address the ESA issue,” he said. He estimated he spends at least 25 percent of his work time dealing with ESA issues–a time-consuming task made especially difficult by the government’s ever-changing rules and regulations.

Utah State University political scientist Randy Simmons and research assistant Kimberly Frost examined FWS reports to discern whether the full costs of ESA are being accurately reported. They noted, “From 1989 to 2000, the FWS estimates that a little over 3.5 billion taxpayer dollars were spent on ESA-related activities.” When costs the ESA imposes on private citizens were added in, Simmons and Frost estimated the act costs taxpayers 10 times as much, some $3.5 billion per year.

Among the costs Simmons and Frost document in “True Costs of the Endangered Species Act,” published in April by the Bozeman, Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center (PERC):

  • Construction of a $55 million high school in Vista Murrieta, California was delayed for one year because of ESA enforcement, costing local residents $1 million.
  • The Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health of the House Resources Committee reported that at least 130,000 jobs have been lost and more than 900 sawmills, pulp and paper mills, and other forest products facilities have closed since mid-1990 because of measures aimed at protecting the northern spotted owl.
  • Farmers in the Klamath Basin in Oregon lost crops valued at $53.9 million in 2001 because irrigation water was shut off to protect two allegedly endangered species of fish.

The PERC report found that “fifty percent of reported expenditures are for seven species, just 0.6 percent of the ESA list.”

Activists Mounting Lawsuits

According to Craig Manson, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks in the U.S. Department of the Interior, too much of the FWS budget is spent reacting to litigation filed by activist environmental groups. In 2003, Manson said, “This flood of litigation over critical habitat designation is preventing the FWS from protecting new species and reducing its ability to recover plants and animals already listed.

“Imagine an emergency room where lawsuits force the doctors to treat sprained ankles while patients with heart attacks expire in the waiting room, and you’ve got a good picture of our endangered species program right now,” he said.

Bruce Babbitt, who was secretary of the Interior during the Clinton administration, described the effects of such litigation in a New York Times op-ed in 2001. “Struggling to keep up with these court orders, the Fish and Wildlife Service has diverted its best scientists and much of its budget for the Endangered Species Act away from more important tasks like evaluating candidates for listing and providing other protections for species on the brink of extinction.”

Babbitt continued, “The best alternative is to amend the Endangered Species Act, giving biologists the unequivocal discretion to prepare maps when the scientific surveys are complete. Only then can we make meaningful judgments about what habitat should receive protection.”

Westerners May Force Changes

As chairman since 2003 of the House committee that has jurisdiction over ESA, Pombo may be in a position to guide ESA reform he has long supported. The Carlsbad hearing was the first of several planned by the Resources Committee for the purposes of taking citizen testimony on the ESA’s impact on their families and communities.

Several bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to improve or modernize the ESA. One such measure, H.R. 2933, is cosponsored by a bipartisan group including Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-California) and would require the secretary of Interior to consider the “direct, indirect, and cumulative economic impacts of the designation, including consideration of lost revenues to landowners.”

Another set of companion bills–H.R. 1662 and S. 2009–introduced by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon) and Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), respectively, would set minimum standards for the scientific data used to list a species. The bills would also require the secretary of the Interior to give greater weight to scientific data that has been field-tested or peer-reviewed, instead of just using the “best available ” science as current law requires. Under the conditions of the proposed legislation, the listing agency would be required to accept landowners’ data on a species. Walden has said of his efforts to reform ESA, “If you went to a doctor and he said to you, ‘we are going to have to take off your right leg,’ you’d probably want a second opinion. Right now under the Endangered Species Act, you just get cut off at the knees.”

Those who live in the Midwest or East feel less of an effect from the ESA because there are fewer listed species there. Maine has only 11 listed species, and Iowa has 14, while California has 288, Texas 81, and Florida 100. Nevertheless, all states are affected by the unnecessary strain the ESA puts on the economy without protecting species. Pombo said recently, “There must be more accountability for results in the ESA. We have to update and modernize this law for the 21st century, change our approaches and focus on improving our results in recoveries.”

Gretchen Randall is a senior partner at Winningreen LLC , an environmental and energy policy consulting firm based in Chicago. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The April 2004 PERC report by Randy T. Simmons and Kimberly Frost, “Accounting for Species: The True Costs of the Endangered Species Act,” is available on the PERC Web site at http://www.perc.org/publications/articles/esa_costs.php?s=2.