ESA talks end in stalemate

While major disagreements remain, Pombo claims consensus

How do you massage the Endangered Species Act so that it’s both more effective in saving endangered species and less burdensome on landowners, ranchers, timber companies and local governments? For now, the answer seems to be, "You can’t."

After four months of meetings, 23 experts could not reach consensus on how to untangle the myriad disputes over the act’s critical habitat provisions (HCN, 2/20/06: High Noon for Habitat).

The nonprofit Keystone Center convened the working group at the request of six U.S. senators. The group, which included environmentalists, landowners, academics, attorneys, timber companies and home builders, met three times over the winter.

In a letter to the senators dated Feb. 17, the panel wrote that the entire group agreed "in short order" that the act could do a better job of protecting wildlife habitat. The question of "how that ought to be accomplished," the letter continued, is a much stickier subject.

The panelists agreed that the government needs to create more incentives for landowners and industry to preserve habitat. Their soon-to-be-published final report will include suggestions to strengthen habitat protection programs in the Farm Bill, and to legally authorize, for the first time, "cooperative conservation agreements" between landowners and the federal government. The panel members also agreed that a better definition of "species recovery" would help wildlife agencies create scientifically sound, financially reasonable and politically credible recovery plans.

The effort stalled, however, on the much touchier subject of changing the act’s regulatory requirements. The group failed to come up with a replacement for the current critical habitat standard limiting destruction or "adverse modification" of habitat. Much of the discussion centered on whether members could produce language that would be significant enough to protect species without burdening landowners.

The group’s members also disagreed on how to deal with actions that would hurt a species’ recovery. Some argued that the law should bar federal agencies from authorizing anything that would reduce the likelihood of recovery. Others argued that agencies need only ensure that their activities do not "preclude the possibility of recovery."

"The general perspective from the conservation community inside Keystone and out is that you can give the feds more resources to do good science and you can integrate habitat protection into recovery planning," says John Kostyack, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation who took part in the talks. "What the people in the regulated industries seemed to be looking for is to remove mandatory protections and make it sort of a voluntary program. I don’t think there will be support for that."