Endangered Species Act reform discussions begin at WGAWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Cody – As chairman of the Western Governors’ Association (WGA), Governor Matt Mead delivered the keynote address on Nov. 12 in Cody at the opening workshop for his Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative, asking everyone to work together to improve the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“In WGA, we recognize that we have political differences and we have different points of view, but we focus on areas where there is a common interest. In those areas of common interest, we put politics aside in favor of progress,” he remarked.
The Governor invited representatives from industry, government and non-government organizations (NGO) to be a part of the conversation, seeking input for positive changes to the Act.
“We, collectively, have to have the courage and the faith that people of good faith, with good intentions, can work together and put together something to present not only at WGA, but broader than that – to the National Governors’ Association and to Congress,” he said.
Throughout the workshop, wolves, grizzly bears and sage grouse were common examples of species that western states have been confronted with in regards to the ESA.
Changing the story
“We have had successes, and we have had things that have been sources of frustration. We have found that the ESA generates endless lawsuits, which are costly, time consuming and, frankly, do little at all to help species,” stated Mead.
Moving forward, the Governor hopes to elevate the role of the states, using best management practices in species management and conservation, while also discovering ways to make the ESA statute more efficient and effective overall.
“We need to have the ESA viewed as a good news story. We need to have a day coming where rancher Joe or Jill finds a threatened species on their place and they don’t view it as bad news. Instead, they view it as a sign of celebration for the stewardship they’ve had to allow for a species to survive,” he noted.
A series of panels followed the keynote address, featuring speakers from business sectors, such as energy and mining; sportsmen, recreation and environmental interests; agriculture and forestry; and government and quasi-governmental entities.
Ed Arnett, senior scientist at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, encouraged conservation efforts to preclude the need for ESA litigation.
“While we certainly agree there are some reasonable reforms that will likely improve the effectiveness of the ESA and its implementation, we believe that the very best solution to improve the Act is to avoid having to use it in the first place,” he explained.
Arnett argued that, throughout the history of the United States, sportsmen have played an important role in conservation and that management plans should not be focused on a single species.
“The future of species conservation has to focus on proactive collaboration, and it needs to utilize that landscape scale, science-based approach to conserve ecosystems and multiple species, well in advance of needing to list them in the first place,” he remarked.
Albert Sommers, Wyoming state representative and president of the Upper Green River Cattle Association, spoke on behalf of livestock producers in the West and described increased death losses due to predation in the Upper Green River cattle allotment.
“Prior to 1994, we averaged about two percent death loss on calves in the allotment. In the last four years before 2015, we were in excess of nine percent calf loss in that allotment,” he noted.
When the Greater Yellowstone Coalition requested a partnership, producers were wary of their intentions, but Sommers encouraged stakeholders to look for opportunities.
“We have to develop relationships with people before we can ever develop any kind of plan or come to any kind of collaboration. We have to be mindful of the past, but we have to look forward and see where the opportunities are in the future. Problems may not be the same as they were in the past,” he stated.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Scott Talbott illustrated the importance of wildlife to the culture of the West, citing a recent survey that determined 74 percent of Wyoming residents feel the presence of wildlife enhances their quality of life in the state.
“Wildlife is very important to us,” he said. “Wyoming statute requires Wyoming Game and Fish Department to manage all wildlife in the state.”
Talbott highlighted state efforts toward conservation and raised concerns about inconsistencies in the implementation of the ESA.
“The Act is administered extremely inconsistently, not only across species but from state to state. While we, as state managers, need some flexibility, I think some of the administration of the Act on a local or regional basis within the Service has created some fairly significant problems for the states,” he noted.
Funding has also been a concern in regards to the ESA, as many federal projects have been supported with state funds.
“I think that funding is a huge issue. I think there needs to be adequate federal funding for federal management of those species,” he commented.
Using the best available science in ESA decisions was also a popular point of discussion throughout the workshop, and Talbott reported that 13 peer-reviewed papers were presented to courts supporting the delisting of grizzly bears from the endangered species list.
“There is a problem with the process when we have an animal like the grizzly bear that has exceeded all recovery criteria for 12 years and that animal is still listed,” he said.
Talbott explained that sound scientific data should carry weight throughout the conservation process.
“I think they do use the best available science for listing. I think they should also use the best available science for delisting species,” he remarked.
The opening workshop was concluded with a number of strategic breakout sessions to identify commonalities and opportunities for cooperation. The next two workshops will be held on Jan. 19 in Boise, Idaho and Feb. 12 in Oahu, Hawaii.
Conversations will also continue throughout the West through webinars, virtual town halls and other meetings.
Gary Frazer, United States Fish and Wildlife Service assistant director of Ecological Services, stated, “For a challenge as big as species conservation and an act as far reaching and consequential as the ESA, we can never stop learning and evolving.”