Playing a bigger role


Smaller governments could have a bigger impact on endangered species

From 1980 to 2015, the number of threatened and endangered species rose from 280 to almost 1,600, and one-third of them live in national forests and grasslands, according to Jacque Buchanan, deputy regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

Meanwhile, state and local governments are seeking to play a bigger role in helping endangered species because the Endangered Species Act is not as effective or efficient as it should be, according to the Western Governors’ Association.

The ESA has a success rate of about 1 percent and costs American taxpayers millions of dollars in court costs — funding that could be better utilized to preserve wildlife.

The association hosted a series of panels with experts on how the ESA impacts various fields during its first forum on the ESA in Cody on Nov. 12-13.

The information gathered at the forum will be used by the association to create an action plan with the long-term objective of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the ESA.

Other panels covered the ESA’s impact on oil, gas and mining; impacts on outdoor recreation, such as hunting; and farmers, ranchers and the timber industry. (See previous Tribune coverage).

The fourth panel focused on how local governments and the public sector are affected by the ESA and how they can be better utilized in habitat preservation. Panelists included Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman, the senior policy analyst for Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, John Harja, and Buchanan.

Bousman said he wants to expand the roll that county government plays in improving the outcomes of the ESA.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to consult with county governments in conservation efforts, this is not always effectively done.

“Despite the language, the federal government ignores their obligations or has a check-the-box exercise,” Bousman said. “The language of the ESA lets the Fish and Wildlife Service off the hook on coordination with counties.”

The moderator for the panel, David Willms, a policy adviser for Gov. Matt Mead, asked what could be done so the needs of states can be met. Both Harja and Bousman said there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but that is how the ESA currently works.

“If it takes one path to get there in Utah and a different one in California, look at the results,” Harja said. “The current system is promoting the wrong things.”

Bousman used the example of requiring 7-inch tall grass for sage grouse across the board, a height that is impossible in some areas where sage grouse live.

The Forest Service is underneath the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and there is a tier down approach on how to deal with the ESA, Buchanan said.

“One of the challenges we face from federal standpoint is, those directives are open to interpretation,” Buchanan said. “We have groups who interpret one way or another and we are in a balancing act. We want flexibility to look at it from a local level and it is a challenge we have and continue to face.”

Commenting on petitions helps, but Bousman wanted to take it further and decide jointly with federal agencies on when and how to list and delist species.

“The most obvious answer is here in Wyoming, the most successful management plans have been developed collaboratively with other governments,” Bousman said.

But, the ESA does not promote or require collaboration with local governments even though they serve as a bridge between residents and the federal government, Bousman said. They also have the best understanding of the socioeconomic status of the region and what kind of impact an ESA listing would bring.

“We work with every agency and find ourselves trapped between two agencies and end up the messenger between them,” Bousman said. “The best decisions are always made by local people working with state and federal (government) at the ground level.”

When it comes to implementing the ESA, there is an “attitude” that everything needs to be identical across state lines, Harja said.

“It fails to recognize the political realities of getting things done — to get them done in Wyoming is different than in Idaho and the West Coast,” Harja said.  

For instance, Utah’s state constitution forbids taking private property without compensation. So to solve the issue, Utah residents voluntarily buy into conservation.

“There may have been a time when laws were needed for cultural apathy,” Bousman said. “The ESA is deeply rooted in 20th century top-down mandates. I am hopeful the Western Governors Association will get it working better with more inclusion or local knowledge.”

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ website, www.wafwa, provides a crucial habitat assessment tool for figuring out where the most important habitats are located, Harja said.

“It shows the states can get together without the interference of Washington (D.C.),” Harja said.