Tag: "endangered species"

The Golden-cheeked Warbler and Piecemeal Environmental Policy

A tiny, migratory songbird is causing a big ruckus in Texas. At issue is the Golden-cheeked warbler’s status according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The bird caused a related stir in 1990 when it was the subject of a petition by members of the anarchist environmental group, Earth First! The petition moved the FWS to exercise its emergency authority to declare a species endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). In December 1990, the agency issued its final rule designating the bird to be an endangered species.

However, a recent comprehensive study has motivated several groups to call for the removal of the golden-cheeked warbler from the list. The findings, as presented by Texas A&M, has been peer reviewed, published in respected journals, and judged as scientifically sound. It appears the golden-cheeked warbler is not endangered. Even more concerning, the species may not have been in peril in 1990, the year FWS declared an emergency protected status.

What does this mean to the hundreds of private property owners who have suffered land restrictions, substantial fines, and criminal prosecution as a result of the warbler’s status? For example, one such case saw a Texas rancher penalized for clearing Ashe Juniper (Cedar) from his property. An activity FWS deemed damaging to the protected bird’s breeding habitat. In a negotiated settlement, the landowner transferred 48 acres to a public preserve and paid $220,260 in land management fees.

Even if one were to believe the earlier, mostly anecdotal based evidence that the golden-cheeked warbler was threatened, the latest research supports its removal from the list of endangered species. Still, some ask since recovery efforts have been so successful, why should the warbler be delisted to face uncertainty?

Simple answer first, the endangered species listing is for species that are, in fact, endangered. To maintain a status that is not evidenced based, delegitimizes the significance of the entire list. Second, although there is no geographical designation of warbler habitat, Ashe Juniper (Cedar) trees are recognized as essential to warbler nesting. So, while the bird is a protected species, landowners are subject to restrictions, in what amounts to a regulatory taking of property rights in regards to Ashe junipers.

Finally, the listing of the warbler has caused a clash of agencies, pitting federal against state in a battle of species management. As well, the limited focus on warbler breeding habitat protection has contributed to serious health issues, particularly for children.

To explain, while the FWS strictly enforces habitat (a tree) protection, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPW) calls the golden-cheeked warbler issue, “A single-species approach to wildlife management“. As a result of federal restrictions, the invasive characteristics of Ashe juniper has negatively impacted the natural ecosystem. According to TPW, in areas where the tree has been left to survive, it has depleted groundwater, increased soil erosion, and impacted the diversity of other plant species. The rise of Ashe juniper, being of little food value, has disrupted the natural habitat of other animal species. In fact, TPW has worked to limit, even eradicate the Ashe juniper while the FWS punishes citizens for clearing the tree from their land.

The increase in Ashe Juniper has also resulted in an upsurge of illness during its pollination cycle. Termed “cedar fever” the effects of Ashe juniper allergies can range from itchy eyes to pneumonia and even trigger asthma attacks. The Ashe juniper tree has one of the most allergenic pollens. In fact, The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has named seven Texas cities in its 2015 list of the most challenging places to live in regards to annual pollen scores.

So here we have the question, should the golden-cheeked warbler be removed from the list of endangered species? Yes. If not merely for the logic the bird is not threatened, then for the impact the designation has to other sensitive areas. More consideration should be made to the causal sequence of government agency decisions prior to making rules. Consideration should be given to economic impact to private citizens, potential health issues, and an analysis of the possible harm to other plant and wildlife species. When pondering the importance of diverse species to a healthy environment, too often the human element is not represented in the equation. A more holistic approach would better assure a healthy, balanced ecosystem.

Federal Land Regulation Continues to Strangle Energy Production…

Federal land ownership in the United States continues to grow despite the federal government already owning more than half of most of the western states. While some have been advocating for the return of this land to the states or protect it from being closed off from oil and gas operations, the Obama Administration has worked just as hard to increase the federal government’s land grab. Contrast:  As President Bush’s second term as president was coming to an end, 4 million acres of land in Alaska was released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for drilling and exploration. Seven years later, President Obama has proposed to set aside 12 million acres in Alaska, designating it as “wilderness” and off-limits to up to 42 billion barrels of oil.

Most recently, the Obama administration has proposed the largest critical habitat designation ever, setting aside 226 million acres of ocean off Alaska’s coastline (an area twice the size of California) to protect the Arctic ringed seals who were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2012 after environmental activists petitioned the Obama administration.

Even though NOAA says that oil and gas activities have occurred in areas with protected species in the past, designating these Alaskan waters as a critical habitat would mean that all oil and gas activity would have to be evaluated based on how much it would impact ringed seals. Alaska’s outer continental shelf is considered to be one of the world’s largest untapped oil and gas reserves boasting as much as 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Other federal lands expansion that slipped into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would add 250,000 acres of new wilderness in western states and put thousands more acres off limits to drilling and mining in states.

In 2011, the U.S. Forest Service originally tried to ban fracking in the 1 million acre George Washington National Forest, but failed. It would have been the first outright ban on the practice in a national forest.

Much of the land targeted for government takeover holds great oil and natural gas resources which could provide jobs in the energy industry and a flow of resources from our own American supply. Once those lands become “monuments,” access to those natural resources is limited and in the hands of the federal government. The government currently owns 650 million acres, or 29 percent of the nation’s total land.

The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 and the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). The Omnibus bill was passed with over 100 land grab measures. The NREPA included federal takeover of nearly 24 million acres of land in the American west and northwest; however, NREPA never made it out of the House subcommittee.

The ability of the White House to simply snatch land from under the feet of the American people comes from the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Act was initially intended to set aside small portions of land for monuments and national parks, but has since been abused by lawmakers to control large quantities of property. Federal government land control and land acquisition takes away opportunities for development, particularly when it comes to much needed energy resources. The land designated as “monument” space could have created jobs, boosted the economy and enhanced our energy security.

Sand Dune Lizard and Lesser Prairie Chicken Could Halt Industry

The plight of two species is putting thousands of acres and the future of the oil and gas industries at risk. If put on the endangered species list, the sand dune lizard and the lesser prairie chicken could block off land from oil and gas companies across multiple states.

The lesser prairie chicken was added to the threatened species list after a court ruling in March 2014. The chicken has known habitats in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, and land management decisions could impact over 100 million acres across the five states.

The sand dune lizard is posing particular problems for the oil industry in West Texas. The lizard’s 800,000 acre habitat spans Southeastern New Mexico and West Texas and just happens to sit right in the middle of Texas oil country.

Given the Obama administration’s recent demonstrations of its willingness to put potentially beneficial land under federal protection, many in the oil and gas industries are concerned that even the potential presence of these species could shut down oil and gas rich areas from exploration or further development.

Shutting down oil-rich areas to protect these species isn’t just bad for the oil and gas industry ― it’s bad for its employees as well. Texas state officials and energy executives have warned that classifying the sand dune lizard as an endangered species could cost thousands of Texans their jobs.

Endangered Listing for Monarch Butterfly = Wrong Direction

While the federal government has already been involved and helping the monarch butterfly populations in the United States, recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is going to protect the butterfly under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The act has been used to save a number of species in the past. However, more and more evidence is showing that the ESA is also being used for other purposes. By placing species on the list, land use by the species can be turned over to the federal government. Recently, the prairie chicken was put on the list along with the infamous spotted owl standoff.

The butterflies mate, lay eggs and feed on milkweed plants while they are temporarily in the United States. Potentially, the federal government could gain control over all of the milkweed plant land.

Even a well-respected monarch butterfly expert (Chip Taylor) said that he does not welcome this form of protection of the butterfly. Taylor, an insect ecologist at Kansas University said:

Nobody wants the government to tell them what to do with their property. The real challenge is to get the message out and get the public involved. This really is the way to go.

The federal government can continue to grow its size and power through many actions including using the Endangered Species Act. As Taylor pointed out, there are other ways to protect a species. Public response and efforts to endangered species around the globe is really having great success. Federal government intervention is the wrong direction.

Move Over Spotted Owl, Make Room for the Sage Grouse

The federal government is aggressively protecting the sage grouse. A few weeks ago, the Feds listed the Gunnison sage grouse as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The Feds want to add the greater sage grouse to the list. The greater sage grouse:

  • lives in 11 western U.S. states
  • covers 165 million acres, almost as big as Texas
  • population dropped from around 16 million over 200 years ago, to under half-million today

Conservationists believe that the sage grouse numbers are getting dangerously low. Human activity, specifically energy exploration and development, is the main cause of this issue, they claim.

However, local efforts in conservation and local economies are overlooked when considering listing under the Endangered Species Act in these cases. Overzealous efforts could have irreversible consequences to local economies and hinder growth. Much of the land in western United States is owned by the federal government. Imagine if that same amount of land in the eastern U.S. was also owned by the Feds. More than likely, the United States would not be the global leader that it is today.

Bluefin Tuna in the Artic Linked to Scary Climate Change

Apparently, climate change is warming the waters of the Arctic Ocean and this is encouraging the bluefin tuna to chase their mackerel prey into these waters — and this is a bad thing?

According to a writer on such issues at TakePart, this change is bad, however there is no mention of how or why it is bad. However, there are several mentions that this is the result of climate change and this strange explanation:

Climate change is really challenging political and diplomatic relationships,” said Nick Dulvy, a professor of marine biodiversity and conservation at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. “Species names will change, and if your quotas are tied to a species name, that’s a problem for the fishery.

Numerous comments and responses to this article, from the shocking to the more realistic and informative, this one was particularly useful:

I hate to be the devil’s advocate (I am a journalist, sorry), but to find bluefin tuna in the cold water of the Arctic is no suprise at all. This fish is one of the few to have a warm blood system, of about 30°C. Hence, the bluefin tuna can hunt for prey from the very warm water of Brazil to the very cold of Arctic, without any problem. It is not new at all. For ages, the bluefin tuna just follows its prey, wherever they are. The news can be that (cold blooded) prey are moving North… If some of you are interested in the topic (and read French), look carefully at this.

Do you also find this this correlation interesting?

House Passes ESA Reform as Veto Looms

Last week, the United States House of Representatives vote on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed 219 to 190.  HR 4315 will now go to the Senate and the White House has said that it will veto the bill.

In addition to requiring federal agencies to make ESA decisions publicly available while respecting while respecting state data privacy laws and private property, HR 4315 would:

  • Require the federal government to disclose to affected states data used prior to an ESA listing decision, and require the federal government’s “best available scientific and commercial data” to incorporate data provided by states, tribes, and local county governments.
  • Require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to track, report to Congress, and make available online the federal taxpayer funds used to respond to ESA lawsuits, the number of employees dedicated to ESA litigation, and attorneys’ fees awarded in the course of ESA litigation and settlement agreements.
  • Prioritize species protection and protect taxpayer dollars by placing reasonable caps on attorneys’ fees to make the ESA consistent with existing federal law. For example, the federal government limits the prevailing attorneys’ fees to $125/hr in most circumstances, including federal suits involving veterans, Social Security, and disability, supporters said. But under the ESA, attorneys are being awarded huge sums, in many cases, at a rate much as $600/hr, they indicated.

Species deniers: Now that is a horse of a different color…

We have all heard the activists and politicians who blame “climate deniers” for not supporting public policies that address the alleged man-made causes of climate disruption, despite all the “settled science” that justifies their push to limit our individual freedoms.

Please allow me draw your attention to an example where “settled science” is currently frustrating the efforts of wildlife activists who are trying to create effective public policy. And it involves their deep romance with the mustang herds that roam the vast American West.

First, some quick background: I stated in an earlier blog post regarding the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that even though a majority of scientists consider the existing biological taxonomy of wildlife as settled science, some scientists disagree as to what exactly defines a distinct species of animal or plant life.

What is wrong with ignoring the critics of “settled science” for deciding what constitutes a “species” when designing effective wildlife policy?

If two very similar types of animals were incorrectly considered separate species when in reality they were biologically identical, the potential elimination of one animal type while the other animal type continues to thrive is not likely to create a meaningful loss to the larger ecosystem.

If you fail to recognize that two similar looking animal types were truly two distinct species, then allowing one type to disappear as long as the other type is thriving may well damage our larger ecosystem. It is important to not make either mistake.

But what is wrong with assuming that choosing more definitions of species is better than choosing fewer when making policy?

As I discussed in yet another blog post, when a given animal species is considered endangered under the ESA, a private land owner or a lessee of federal lands could be required to endure significant economic losses to preserve the natural habitat of this endangered species. These very real and personal economic losses are never discussed when the federal agencies tabulate their costs for enforcing the ESA.

Well, wouldn’t a federal agency directed by a representative democracy make sure that any individual economic sacrifice be required only to prevent a real threat to our ecosystem?

Perhaps, but it is in any wildlife management agency’s best interest to sidle up with wildlife activists to define a “species” as narrowly as possible. This maximizes the opportunities to exercise control over private land owners and federal land lessees, which would then justify their growing mission and budget needs.

Surely you are being overly pessimistic!

Back to the lead story: A recent development regarding activists concerned about the dwindling herds of wild horses roaming the American West is clearly justifying my fears.

Most land owners or federal land lessees in the western states see wild horses as a nuisance animal, much like feral dogs that terrorize an urban neighborhood or feral hogs that destroy golf courses and farm lands. These folks even organize annual round-ups to limit the damages arising from these herds, paying the participants with the very horses they catch.

However, supporters of these wild horses see them as mustangs. They are romantic, living mementos of a defining era in American history (and I admit that I share that perspective). Yet, these mustang activists are seeking explicit protection of these wild horses under the ESA. I just cannot support that approach. It involves manipulating science for the sake of romance.

You see, the ESA empowers various federal agencies to severely restrict the individual liberties of private land owners and lessees of federal lands — but only if such restrictions are a necessary consequence of protecting and preserving an endangered species of wild animal or plant life. In other words, an entire native species must be at risk before this act can be invoked.

As I predicted, mustang activists are lobbying the federal government to deny settled science in defining what constitutes a native species. As AP reporter Scott Sonner notes:

Efforts to halt mustang roundups in Congress and the courts have been unsuccessful over the past decade, but two groups in a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service are focusing on genetics and research they say prove the (wild) horses are a native species. They say growing threats from development, livestock grazing and government gathers are jeopardizing the genetic viability of individual herds in 10 states from California to Montana.

Jeopardizing the “genetic viability” of a specific herd comprised of a species that exists abundantly elsewhere does not create the same threat to our ecosystem that jeopardizing an entire species would create. You see, the meaning of biological definitions really does matter for making good public policy.

Today, most of the scientific community considers both domesticated and wild horses as a single species, known as equus ferus. Mustangs are simply considered invasive, feral horses that were introduced to the American West by humans. Defining both wild and domesticated horses as a single species was legitimated by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in 2003. In other words, this biological species definition is “settled science.”

Yet, mustang activists think the federal definition of “species” should ignore settled science and divide horses into two separate species: wild and domesticated. Their motive does not appear to be promoting scientific clarity over biological taxonomy. Instead, after failing to convince a representative democratic governments to create legislation strong enough to preserve our dwindling Mustang herds, these wildlife activists are willing to deny “settled science” for effective political maneuvering.

It seems that when it comes to that great American icon, the noble mustang, wildlife activists are happy to be “settled science” deniers too.

A Way Out of The Endangered Species Mess

Too many environmental issues are seen as crime and punishment problems.  The bureaucratic process that implements the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of the results. That process produces too few environmental benefits, too many economic losses, and an unnecessary infringement on individual liberties. Far more species go extinct waiting to be listed as endangered or threatened, and after being listed, than are upgraded to a less threatened status or delisted (true success).

The current process is unsuited to the real issue, which is how to efficiently accommodate competing users (people, plants, and animals) of land. That is being increasingly recognized, even by mainstream environmental activists. With the implementation details of each case now in the hands of government employees, the science of species listing and recovery is tainted by politics. Since the ESA’s official goal of preserving our biodiversity enjoys strong public support, we must develop news, more productive ways of pursuing it.

With appropriate property rights, market mechanisms will protect threatened plants and animals much more efficiently than the current bureaucratic process. Private property rights can be strengthened to make listed plants and animals more valuable to individual landowners (50% of endangered and threatened species occur only on private land) as they become more scarce. It will cause landowners (including public landowners) to ‘set aside’ enough land to recover and sustain each listed species. The key details are the definition of habitat, how much is enough, and how much actual and restorable habitat exists; facts that are already required by the existing process.

‘Set aside’ should not mean outright purchase in most cases. Most species can co-exist with human activity. Indeed, they must. There is not enough money or land to provide every threatened species with its own exclusive refuge. The viable terms of that co-existence determine the type of easement that landowners that eliminate habitat must purchase (perhaps subsidized?) from landowners that maintain habitat. The market price of such easement arrangements will depend upon development pressures (demand), the scarcity of existing and potential habitat, and the biological requirements of the species (supply).

In the well-known, expensive Edwards Aquifer-Endangered Species situation of South Central Texas, pumpers could be habitat eliminators during severe droughts. An approach analogous to land easements would be to levy a small pumping fee and use the revenue to maintain aquatic habitat. Depending on cost comparisons and conditions, a number of measures could be funded. They include springflow purchase, springflow augmentation, and artificial habitat maintenance for the inevitable times of severe drought. Past attempts (the 1995 Texas Legislature’s revision of 1993’s SB 1477) to address the problem are very expensive, they limit pumping too much, they do not ensure that the springs the endangered species depend on will not go dry, and therefore do not ultimately fully address the possibility of federal sanctions that supposedly justify the costly measures.

All landowners would be better off under the proposed easement purchase process than under the expensive, open-ended, indeterminate process that exists now. Landowners contemplating land uses that would eliminate some habitat would enjoy lower known costs and no species habitat-related delays. The existing process is fraught with uncertain high costs and long delays, and often ultimate denial of permission. It is especially hard on small landowners, for whom the existing process can easily cost much more than their land is worth.

Under the easement purchase proposal outlined above, land developers would have an incentive to minimize their destruction of habitat, and other landowners would have an incentive to protect and restore habitat, and advertise its existence. Habitat owners would profit from the chance to sell the easements. Habitat owners would be better off under the proposed market approach than if there was no public interest in maintaining a sufficient level of species habitat. Contrast that with the existing incentives. Now most landowners fear (and take steps to prevent) the discovery of habitat of potentially threatened species on their property, because it could cause property values to fall, and land use restrictions could lead to forfeiture. Species also suffer from the existing process because it creates incentives to destroy habitat, and no incentive to maintain it.

In closing, it is important to summarize the role of government in the proposed market approach to species protection. The government would no longer engage in case-by-case ‘consultations’ (the root of the problem). Biological data would be used to define the terms of easements, and how much protected habitat is enough. The government would enforce compliance with the terms of the easements just like it enforces other contracts. If the requirement that habitat eliminators acquire easements constitutes a ‘taking’, public funds could be used to subsidize easement purchases.

The Under-Reported Costs of the Endangered Species Act

When I read articles from the apologists for the Endangered Species Act (ESA), I often read silly statements like,

The U.S. federal and state governments spent just more than $1.7 billion to conserve endangered and threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in fiscal year (FY) 2012… (W)ith a pretty high success rate of preventing species from going extinct, the ESA works out a decent bang for your buck.

Well, I beg to differ — $1.7 billion is just a small part of the total economic costs of implementing the ESA. Let me count the ways:

1)    The economic costs of implementing the ESA include its total impact on economic efficiency. This includes all of the lost economic opportunity that arises from the restrictions that are imposed by the ESA. When a federal agency declares private property as a “critical habitat” for an endangered species on private land, that agency can force the land owner to discontinue her economic use of that land. This impacts not only the landowner, but all of the businesses that directly engage in trade with that landowner. How bad can this cost be? One economic study in 1994* looked at the ESA recovery plan for the spotted owl species in the northwest. It estimated that this plan decreased economic welfare in the region by $33 billion (and that was in 1990 dollars). That was just one recovery plan… for one endangered species… for specific period of time.

2)    The economic costs of implementing the ESA include its total impact on social equity. What is almost never considered by such apologists is the unequal distribution of who ultimately bears the cost. The cost of any regulation is not just the taxes raised for implementing the Act. These taxes are spread across the federal government tax base, and (conceptually) everyone bears some federal tax exposure. However, the economic costs that arise from regulations are borne only by the landowner and those that directly relied on the land owner for trade. This creates a disproportionate share of the total economic costs to be borne by the land owners and the people who do business with them, rather than by the nation’s taxpayers. That same spotted owl study estimated that the regional producers of intermediate wood products bore the brunt of that $33 billion economic loss, which was a very small segment of the regional population. Ouch…

3)    The economic costs of implementing the ESA include its total impact on individual rights. Yet another aspect of the cost of implementing the ESA is that when private property owners are told that their land is “critical habitat” and can no longer be used for its historical economic activity, this amounts to a “taking”  that is supposedly protected under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, the land owner must undertake very expensive legal action to sue the federal government for her rightful “just compensation” for this taking. Research by the Congressional Research Service has shown that the odds of winning such suits are relatively low. Their 2013 study identified 18 such ESA cases filed against the federal government, with only one being successful at the time of printing and two still outstanding. That means there is between a 83% to 94% chance of losing a very expensive law suit to defend your Constitutional rights. A track record like that will be sure to send a message to those who believe the U.S. Constitution will protect their individual rights.