July 3, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Protect ESA from peril of legislative assaults

 

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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Fish and Wildlife authorities in Idaho and Montana are again managing gray wolves.

Can they manage a can of worms?

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and U.S. Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., in March added to a must-pass budget bill a provision taking wolf populations in the two states off the endangered species list.

The legislation was their response to years of the litigation that culminated in a ruling last August that barred the two states from going forward with their management plans until Wyoming also submitted a proposal. Wyoming insists on a free hand.

Until 1995, managing wolves was easy. They had been hunted and trapped to extinction decades earlier. Since new populations were introduced to the Idaho backcountry and Yellowstone National Park – a total of 66 animals – their numbers have increased beyond all expectations. The goal was a regional population of 300. The estimated population today is five times that despite the killing of hundreds of them by federal wildlife officials.

Packs have spread into Oregon and Washington.

They do not travel on empty stomachs.

Wolves have reduced game numbers, to the frustration of hunters and outfitters. They attack domestic livestock, angering ranchers compensated, but not consoled, by government checks to cover their losses.

Wolves need to be regulated. States can do the job. Conservationists should recognize there’s a balance to be struck.

But piecemeal dismantling of the Endangered Species Act, a law that has returned to the wild, and to Americans, viable populations of the iconic bald eagle and other magnificent species, is a very bad idea.

Even Simpson acknowledges the perils of congressional wildlife management. Already, lawmakers from Texas and New Mexico claim protecting the lesser prairie chicken and dunes sagebrush lizard will block oil and gas development.

Simpson also correctly notes that species protection has been used by conservation groups to lock up land and water. Species protection does mean habitat protection.

All kinds of critters are out there where they oh-so-inconveniently belong. Sometimes, even when we try to keep them there, our efforts fall short. Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released yet another plan to save the northern spotted owl – 20 years after its listing as a threatened species. Despite protections that included timber harvesting restrictions in old-growth forests, spotted owl numbers continue to shrink.

These are very tough problems to resolve, and the fixes are often imperfect. When it comes to wildlife management and Washington, D.C., well, wrong habitat.

Members of Congress who want to take a cue from Simpson and Tester have the ultimate must-pass opportunity upcoming: the debt-reduction bill. If wildlife foes try to plaster the legislation with ESA restrictions, it’s going to get coyote ugly.


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