GUEST OPINION: Time for an ESA Makeover
American Farm Bureau Federation director of congressional relations
Farmers, ranchers and environmentalists all agree that we must protect and recover wildlife facing preventable extinction. The Endangered Species Act is not getting that job done, however, and is long overdue for a makeover. With a recovery rate of less than 2 percent over four decades, the ESA needs to be modernized if it’s going to protect truly endangered species without jeopardizing private property rights and landowners’ financial wellbeing.
While farmers and ranchers in the western United States are all too familiar with the way the ESA can disrupt the local economy, communities throughout the rest of the nation are now facing similar problems as ESA listings and regulatory restrictions increase. Thanks to the leadership of Congressman Doc Hastings (R.-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, the House has renewed its commitment to updating the 41-year-old law by passing the bipartisan Endangered Species Transparency and Reasonableness Act. In the meantime, however, the implementation of the ESA continues to place an undue burden on farmers and small businesses across the country.
In Montana, one such listing being considered is the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. The bird is listed as “threatened” and whoever decided it should be a candidate for listing as “endangered” has not done their research. The far western side of Montana is at the very edge of the cuckoo’s habitat, thus the bird is not a regular visitor to Big Sky Country. In fact, there have been 29 sightings in 44 years and four sightings in 14 years. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this bird is “known to or is believed to” occur in that far western part of Montana. “Believed to” is certainly not evidence. There is not good reason to list this bird as it has not habitat in the state. Listing the cuckoo would put strain on farmers and ranchers for no good reason.
The proposed listing of the Northern Long-Eared Bat, for example, could impact agriculture across 38 states and the District of Columbia. In response to the proposed listing, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau board member and Natural and Environmental Resources Committee chairman Jim Brubaker testified before the House Natural Resources Committee this fall. According to Brubaker, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has ignored the facts and subjectively linked species decline to common agricultural practices, like pesticide application, even though there is no evidence of manmade factors significantly affecting this bat species. The FWS even acknowledged that species population decline is actually the result of a widespread fungal disease called White Nosed-Syndrome, for which there is no known cure. As the scientific facts fail to support this proposed listing, ESA’s case is looking more like a backdoor tactic to ban pesticide use — despite the fact that pesticide applications are already well-regulated by state and federal laws.
The administration seems happy to keep extending the scope and reach of the ESA far beyond its original design to cover activities and situations not contemplated when the law was originally enacted. In Arkansas, the listing of the Neosho Mucket and Rabbitsfoot mussels threatens to clamp down on farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to manage their businesses. The proposed critical habitat for these two aquatic species would affect nearly 42 percent of the state’s watershed. In addition to the direct impact on land-owners and farmers, the proposed habitat designation would also derail infrastructure projects, like repair and maintenance of roads and bridges, and could restrict other construction and development projects across the state.
In response to what’s going on in his state, Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before the Natural Resources Committee to lend his support to the Common Sense in Species Protection Act, which would require impact studies to be conducted before designating critical habitats. Agencies currently lack the accountability needed in this area and are not yet required to show full economic justification before designating land as a critical habitat. This makes it all too easy for the administration to throw new regulatory burdens on farmers and ranchers at the risk of the stability of the nation’s agricultural economy.
Congress needs to act swiftly and complete the work begun in the House to modernize the ESA as well as target the administration’s continued efforts to expand the reach of the ESA through expansive federal rulemakings. Some small but important steps can be taken now to bring common sense to the ESA, from increasing transparency and making data available online to enhancing local participation in recognizing and protecting endangered species.
Farmers and ranchers are proud stewards of the natural resources and wildlife on their land, yet the ESA continues to punish them with unrealistic burdens and restrictions. Yes, federal agencies and citizens must take responsible action to protect wildlife legitimately in danger of extinction, but we must succeed in this task without endangering American agriculture in the process.