-Hank Fischer: least popular man in Montana," shouts a 1978 headline in High Country News.
Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife earned
that label by fighting the federal Animal Damage Control and its
use of compound 1080 to eradicate predators in the West. Ranchers
thought Fischer was trying to destroy their way of
Today, the 46-year-old Fischer often picks
up the phone to chat with ranchers. He has even written checks to a
few when they have been able to document that wolves killed their
livestock. Some fellow environmentalists say he has been co-opted.
"I don't think I have changed
that much," Fischer says. "But it has been an evolution."
Fischer says he first became disenchanted with
the polarized world of environmental politics fighting the ADC
coyote-killers. "I had the sensation that reporters would call me
up after talking to the livestock growers just to get a reaction,"
he recalls. "I began to think, "I'm not the foil for those people.
There has to be a more thoughtful way."
Fischer's views evolved further during the
heated two-decades-long battle to return wolves to Yellowstone. In
his forthcoming book, Wolf Wars: the Remarkable Inside Story of the
Restoration of Wolves to Yellowstone, Fischer tells of his growing
realization that the ranchers' concerns about wolf depredation had
to be met before wolves could be reintroduced.
He took Yellowstone ranchers on a tour of
Minnesota farmland, where wolves and livestock coexist; he
convinced his organization to set up a compensation fund for
ranchers whose livestock gets killed by wolves; and he threw his
support behind a wolf recovery plan that allows ranchers to kill
wolves that take livestock.
Fischer could see
the irony when major environmental groups sued the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife because it didn't provide full protection for Yellowstone
wolves under the Endangered Species Act. "I'd always expected that
someone would file a lawsuit over wolf restoration," he writes,
"but I never thought my friends would do it."
Because of their pragmatism, Fischer's views
have started to receive a geat deal of attention in Congress, where
the Endangered Species Act is up for
"I don't fear change in the
Endangered Species Act," says Fischer, "We've been living with this
law for more than 20 years. It's hardly realistic to think we'd get
it right the first time."
Fischer believes the
debate over the act needs to focus on private lands, where most of
the conflicts between endangered species and humans occur. "On
public lands, the regulatory approach has worked well. For the most
part, the land agencies have integrated the act into how they do
their business. (But) anyone who has seen instances where the ESA
has been applied to private landowners knows that it is a complete
glass hammer. As soon as you use it, it shatters."
Incentives for private-land owners - encouraging
people to embrace endangered species instead of wanting them to
disappear - are the key to Fischer's
"When we introduced the wolf
compensation fund, it created a whole different climate where the
polarization just disappears," he says.
principle could be applied to the prairie dog, a species which
creates habitat for a whole community of threatened species, he
says. "We could pay the rancher for protecting healthy prairie dog
towns. It wouldn't cost that much."
the government could use tax breaks as a method of distributing the
subsidy: Good ranchers pay less tax, bad ones pay
In 1993, Fischer compiled a Defenders of
Wildife report, Building Economic Incentives Into the Endangered
Species Act, which features the ideas of some of the country's best
wildlife minds. Already in its third printing, the report has been
embraced by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress; Fischer
hopes it will be the basis for proposed changes to the law.
"Once they get through this stage of flinging
rhetoric back and forth, we'll see a serious discussion of where
the law really needs to be changed," says Fischer. "I'm hoping to
keep the debate focused on the private-lands issue."
Are all species
"Every species is not exactly equal, even
biologically," says Fischer. "No one wants to play God, but we have
to. We have finite resources for recovering endangered species."
Fischer notes that Congress appropriated more
than $70 million for endangered-species recovery this year, an
all-time high yet small compared to needs. Because of the financial
constraints, Fischer believes that certain key species deserve
protection first. "If you protect grizzly habitat, you've protected
habitat for a whole bunch of other species," he says.
Then why spend $10 million bringing back the
wolf? "That's a good question," he says. "I don't think wolf
recovery was done in the right way. When something takes that long
and costs that much, it's hard to call it a victory. That money
probably would have been more effectively spent on prairie dogs.
The problem now is that too often lawsuits are determining what
species get priority, not the science or the people."
These days, Fischer is working hard to
restore the grizzly bear to the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem.
Taking a lesson from the wolf wars, he has gone
directly to the opposition, in this case the timber industry and
labor organizations. Together, they are drafting a recovery plan
that would provide the timber industry with some certainty it can
cut some trees in grizzly habitat.
At the core of
the proposal is a "non-essential, experimental" designation for the
bears, the same tag given to Yellowstone wolves. This will give
landowners more control over bears that kill their
Fischer hopes the plan will become the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's preferred alternative. The
cooperative effort has already helped secure from Congress the
money for the environmental impact statement. "We were able to get
the funding for the EIS in just a year," he says. "It took seven
years with the wolf."
But some worry that
Fischer, working outside of public process, is cutting deals that
will hurt the bears' chances in the
"Everybody's nervous about this,"
Fischer admits. "But to me the word "sell-out" connotes winners and
losers. That's not how it is, even in ecosystems. You just make
* Paul Larmer