Game on, Government!


Updated 8/3/2011, 2:46 pm

A grouse, a prairie chicken, and a rabbit walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, "There's a two for one special on drinks tonight. Who's game?"

Okay, cheesy pun, I admit. But here's a worse joke: In June, Safari Club International, a wealthy hunters’ rights group, filed a motion to intervene in a set of significant wildlife deals between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity on the grounds that its members’ interests in hunting the greater sage grouse, lesser prairie chicken, and New England cottontail (all of which are declining) will be impaired.

Just when the environmental species storm appears to be calming, somebody else steps in to rock the boat and dump progress overboard.

The settlements, which will require the Service to make decisions on whether to list more than 200 imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act by 2016, have been called historic, and for good reason. According to Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Vanessa Kaufman, WildEarth Guardians and CBD are the two most litigious advocacy groups in the U.S. on domestic species. But as part of its settlement, WildEarth Guardians agreed to limit filing new petitions to list species and refrain from suing the Service over missed deadlines, which should allow the Service to catch up on its massive backlog of species petitions and late reviews, for which it kept getting sued. A vicious cycle, indeed. (CBD's agreement, according to Executive Director Kieran Suckling, "does not limit the number of listing lawsuits we can file, it just pushes back some decision deadlines if we file more than a set number of suits.")

In an email, Safari Club spokesperson Nelson Freeman says the Club believes, "it has made a sufficient showing to warrant its intervention in the case." However, considering that, the Service, in addition to the two environmental groups, has opposed the motion (FWS usually keeps out of third party disputes), their chances may be not be great.

And here's the real farce: While the Club's motion appears to rest on the backs of three game animals, it actually opposes the agreements wholesale. "When you see a group opposing a 250 species settlement and not just the three they care about, you wonder what their real motivations are," says Jay Tutchton, adjunct professor at the University of Denver law school and general counsel for WildEarth Guardians. "Those three give them an excuse to get their foot in the door."

The Club's best motivations come from its members' deep local ties to the land and enduring hunting heritage, noble enough origins to be sure. To them, the settlements represent the worst kind of federal meddling. Wildlife conservation is something that should be handled locally.

"The question for Safari Club International for each of the three game species at issue is whether state management of the species, in cooperation with other stakeholders, is more likely to conserve and grow the species than are the rigid Federal constraints of the ESA," says Freeman. "In most cases, and in these three cases, Safari Club believes that state management is better."

The state vs. federal management question is a legitimate policy issue. But state management of the grouse, prairie chicken and cottontail, has failed the animals at this point—despite states' recent efforts to protect them given the threat of an ESA listing—and they don't have time for policy debates. Today, the range of the New England cottontail (New England's only native rabbit) has shrunk 86 percent.

Survival threats like this are why these animals are candidates for listing, which brings up another point: It seems like any move, whether federal or not, to protect and grow populations of imperiled species for future generations of hunters would line up neatly with the interests of SCI and its members. After all, dead lesser prairie chickens are dead forever, unless they're zombie prairie chickens, in which case I will gladly join the Club and shoot to kill.

In its motion to intervene, the Club includes a number of exhibits meant to drive home the idea that its members have hunted, and will continue to hunt, the animals in question:

[SCI member Robert Robel] has hunted the lesser prairie-chicken since the 1990s, hunted last December in the southwestern part of [Kansas], and intends to hunt the bird again in the Fall of 2011 and in subsequent years.

Such dedication to hunting an imperiled animal confuses Tutchton. "Are you actually getting more out of shooting a lesser prairie chicken because it's imperiled than you do from a pheasant? Why do you have to go after this bird where there are fifty of them in the same area as there are hundreds of pheasants? Do they get off on shooting the rare ones?"

As a fisherman, I admit that if I found out I might be prohibited from fishing for rainbow trout in Montana because they might be listed, I would be bummed. For one second. And then I would happily remember the loads of other trout for which I can legally fish. It seems like if Club members really find hunting New England cottontails so much more exhilarating than hunting, say, Eastern cottontails, they should applaud the settlements. The New England cottontail, which the Service considers a very critical listing priority based on the high magnitude and immediacy of threats against it, might be getting a shot at recovery, which would give the Club members’ kids and grandkids an opportunity to hunt it in the future. Federally sponsored or not, that has to be a good thing.

The Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians’ agreements and Safari Club’s motion to intervene are currently before U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who is expected to rule on them in the next couple of months. 


Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern at High Country News

All images courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service