Idaho reaches for control of the ESA

New office seeks to keep species management closer to home

 

BOISE, Idaho - On the cusp of retirement, former Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Jim Caswell decided against joining the country club, buying an RV and settling into the golden years with ease. Instead, after a 33-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, Caswell chose to leap headfirst into controversy as the director of Idaho's new Office of Species Conservation, the first such office in the country.

Created by the Idaho Legislature in 2000, the office's mission is to serve as Idaho's central point of contact for the management and recovery of 22 federally listed endangered species. Caswell's staff will oversee the development of state-based recovery plans for each endangered species, a key step required before delisting can occur. In addition, Caswell will work on forging new agreements between private landowners and state and federal agencies, to work on habitat-conservation plans and other measures to improve the plight of endangered species.

"I thought, gee, this might be kind of fun," says Caswell. "I do mainly believe that there's got to be a way to find solutions to these endangered species issues."

With $530,000 in state money and $2.5 million in federal funds, the office is off and running. But while it has won praise from federal and state wildlife officials, it has drawn skepticism from most conservationists. Idaho, they say, has long advocated weakening the Endangered Species Act, and Caswell has a less than stellar conservation record.

"This is an anti-conservation agenda designed to look green while really being a tool for industry," says Mike Bader of the nonprofit Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

A spotty record

A look at recent history shows that Idaho has an inconsistent record when it comes to endangered species.

Environmentalists complain that Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, the GOP-dominated Idaho Legislature, and Caswell himself oppose taking real action to benefit endangered salmon.

"In the Legislature, Caswell was quoted as saying we shouldn't remove the Lower Snake dams, and we shouldn't use any more Idaho water for salmon, that there's got to be another way to save salmon," says Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. "They say they love salmon, but they're stuck in the middle of a gross contradiction, and they're hoping that no one will notice."

A similar situation exists with endangered wolves, says John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League. Idaho has refused to participate in the recovery program (HCN, 2/26/01: Return of the natives), and recently, the Idaho Legislature passed a nonbinding resolution that calls on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove all the endangered gray wolves in Idaho - more than 150 animals - "by whatever means necessary."

According to McCarthy, that's evidence that Caswell is letting the Legislature set the endangered species agenda.

John Freemuth, professor of political science at Boise State University, agrees.

"I have a lot of respect for Caswell - he's an honest shooter," Freemuth says. "But he's getting undercut by a lot of other stuff. For his office to succeed, he needs to have the support of the Kempthorne administration and the Legislature."

Others question Caswell himself. When Caswell was forest supervisor he was "very timber-friendly," says Bader. "With that background, we will have an industry approach to endangered species."

But Caswell is positive that the Office of Species Conservation can make more gains in favor of endangered species by including industry and private landowners. He's convinced that more landowners will join species-recovery efforts if they take advantage of "safe harbor" agreements with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"You can't recover a species only by working on improvements on public land," Caswell says. "It's got to be integrated with efforts on state and private land. You can make gains for species if they're based on incentives."

Idaho Sen. Laird Noh, R, chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, says the Office of Species Conservation is "going to be a real service for the public. There are lots of people knocking on the door, saying 'Help!' " Noh says.

Fish and Wildlife officials are also upbeat. "Bottom line, I want the Office of Species Conservation to be successful," says Bob Ruesink, supervisor of the Snake River Basin office for the FWS in Boise. "I want them to help us get support from other state agencies, and we want to do our best to work with them."

ESA devolution?

Caswell's office is the latest manifestation of a growing trend in the federal government to give states more control of endangered species.

Under the Clinton administration, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt encouraged Oregon to release its own salmon recovery plan (HCN, 3/17/97: Oregon governor says volunteers can save coho). The federal government has also allowed the Great Plains states to take the lead on developing a conservation plan for black-tailed prairie dogs, a species environmentalists say deserves full protection under the Endangered Species Act (HCN, 8/16/99: Standing up for the underdog).

"This is a trend of devolution and a way to get around federal law," says Bader of Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

According to Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, Caswell's office is the first of many to come in the West. At a conference of state governments he recently attended in Las Vegas, Suckling says all the Western states were planning to develop endangered species offices and then ask Interior Secretary Gale Norton to devolve the endangered species management to the states.

"There's no question that would be a disaster for wildlife," says Suckling. Compounding his worry is the Bush administration's proposed budget for 2002, which would suspend a federal law that forces the Fish and Wildlife Service to list imperiled species as endangered under a specific timeline. By suspending timelines, Bush would take away citizen groups' ability to sue when the Service is languishing on listing.

"The things we've always relied on when the states or the feds get up to these shenanigans, is the ability to sue; now they're trying to take that right away," says Suckling. "That's what really frightens me. It's no accident these things are happening at the same time."

Stephen Stuebner writes from Boise, Idaho.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Jim Caswell, Office of Species Conservation, 208/334-2189;
  • John McCarthy, Idaho Conservation League, 208/345-6933, Jmccarthy@wildidaho.org.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Stephen Stuebner