It’s hard to imagine a better advocate for an overhaul of the Endangered Species Act than former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who testified last week before the U.S. Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee.
Freudenthal wrangled repeatedly with the federal government over management of animals on the Endangered Species List during the eight years he was governor of Wyoming. For eight years before that, he enforced the law as a U.S. attorney, and much of his current private practice involves natural resource and wildlife issues.
Freudenthal also served recently as co-chairman of the “Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources,” which included representatives from around the country.
Given his scope of experience, we hope the Environmental and Public Works Committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., gives serious consideration to the testimony and recommendations Freudenthal provided last week.
Freudenthal said the ESA’s goals are noble, but the law has been misused by administrations and court decisions over time and now is completely unworkable. Species are rarely delisted, while more species continue to be added to the list, whether actually warranted or not.
Needed changes he identified include:
• A disciplined listing process requiring petitioners to provide a strong, scientifically-based basis for a proposed listing.
The law currently requires only the best science and data that is “available.”
A resulting example was what Freudenthal termed “a wild-beetle chase” for the narrow-foot Hygrotus diving beetle, which was listed after someone saw a single beetle in northeastern Wyoming in 1964.
Since then, Freudenthal said, Wyoming has spent $110,000 “to complete the inadequate homework of the petitioner,” and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to “kick the can down the road.”
Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in “the dark ages” in 1973, Freudenthal said, science has progressed dramatically and now offers DNA testing and other advances that should be utilized to back up species listing petitions.
• Work with the states in species-recovery efforts.
While the act provides for state and federal cooperation, it generally doesn’t happen that way. Instead, the federal government tends to minimize state contributions while expecting states to foot the bill.
“Game and fish agencies are not stooges for economic development,” Freudenthal said. “You appoint people to those agencies because they believe in the mission, and yet somehow that gets discounted as it works its way through the system, and the decision making is centralized in (Washington) D.C.”
• Stop moving the goal posts.
Set reasonable recovery goals for a species when it is listed instead of changing them time and time again.
Freudenthal recounted Wyoming’s experiences with grizzly bears and wolves, both of which included constantly evolving expectations for the geographic areas where they should be protected and the population numbers that would indicate the species had recovered.
Freudenthal said Wyoming has spent more than $43 million on grizzly bear management since 1980.
During the same time period, the state has spent more than $9 million for gray wolf management, though initial plans to relocate the wolves to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem considered them a “non-essential experimental population.”
Federal overreach continued to expand the territory deemed necessary for the gray wolf, and wolves now are listed as an endangered species statewide.
• Eliminate the ESA candidate designation.
“There are simply not enough federal resources in the listing and delisting budget to fully address listed species — no less candidates,” Freudenthal said, adding, “After being named a candidate, a species enjoys a significant protection — as if it were listed.”
He said “the candidate ‘safety blanket’ has become a favored litigation tool for environmental groups.”
Freudenthal also talked about Wyoming’s experience when the sage grouse was considered for listing. That prompted the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to work with public agencies, businesses, private entities and other stakeholders to put protections in place to develop the Wyoming Sage Grouse Core Area Strategy.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately made a “warranted but precluded” finding for the bird. That finding was tested in Idaho, where a judge reluctantly upheld it, but made clear that would be revisited unless the federal government created protections and regulatory mechanisms on federal land.
That ruling resulted in policy changes for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service management in regard to sage grouse habitat — and they go beyond the scope outlined in the state’s core area strategy.
The result is that now, Wyoming must deal with three federal agencies in regard to the sage grouse.
“... By the time they were through integrating it into the federal land plans, we may have been better off with a listing, because at least the rules were clear,” Freudenthal told the committee.
Freudenthal also called for the amount awarded to litigants, law firms and expert witnesses in Endangered Species Act-related lawsuits to be published in the Federal Register.
The former governor’s comments add to the abundance of evidence already available that it is high time the Endangered Species Act was streamlined and modernized to make it function as it was intended. We call on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee to follow through as quickly as possible and to forward a comprehensive, workable overhaul of the law.
The public, and truly endangered species, deserve no less.