The key to endangered species recovery? Communication.

A retired federal biologist says Trump’s Interior Department is more business as usual than critics claim.

 

Biologist Ted Koch led the reintroduction of gray wolves into Idaho in the 1990s.

Worldwide, over one million species face extinction, according to a recent U.N. report. In the U.S., tools like the Endangered Species Act may help some avert that fate. Ted Koch, a biologist who retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August 2018, has seen the potential of recovery efforts up close: He led the project to reintroduce gray wolves to Idaho more than two decades ago, and was the assistant regional director for ecological services overseeing the endangered species program in the Southwest until last year.

High Country News recently caught up with Koch, who serves on the board of the conservation-minded hunting and fishing organization Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, to talk about species recovery and political influence within the Interior Department. As interest groups drive debates and federal agencies retreat to talking points, understanding the perspectives of Koch and others who do the nitty-gritty work of conservation can illuminate the hardships and hard-won compromises that recover species.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Ted Koch was a career conservation biologist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before retiring in 2018.
Courtesy of Ted Koch

High Country News: What is the biggest challenge for endangered species management in the West? 

Ted Koch: The greatest issue with endangered species management and related land management in the West is a lack of effective communication.

My job, and the mission of the service and the purpose of the ESA (Endangered Species Act), is working with others to conserve the ecosystems upon which we and all other species depend. I can say that to the most hardened, crusty, ESA-hating rancher, logger or miner, and they will agree that that is a noble goal. Our inability to communicate that fundamental idea is the greatest challenge. So much of the American public feels threatened by ESA programs or feels that ESA programs aren't going far enough.  

HCN: What are some examples of how communication makes a difference? 

TK: I was the project leader when we reintroduced gray wolves to Idaho in the early 1990s. And I would go kick dirt with Brad Little (now the governor of Idaho), who was an industry leader in ranching and had concerns about wolf depredation. When the media came calling I would hold press conferences that I’d set up by myself, and I would tell people what was going on. With that empowerment of people who are actually on the ground — talking to the managers and talking to other citizens — comes greater credibility, strength and authority.

That does not happen anymore. Today, on a topic like wolf recovery, oftentimes, our spokespeople are based at the regional director’s office, if not Washington, D.C.  

HCN: How does political influence affect the ability of agencies to save species?

TK: I’ll start by saying that happens far less often than most people would like to think. In fact, in the last two years of my career overseeing 160 endangered species in four states in the Southwest, we put up maybe a couple dozen Endangered Species Act listing decisions, and I was never rolled on any of those recommendations. I received a pocket veto (a tacit denial resulting from inaction by officials) on two of them. (But) the Trump administration is the same as all previous administrations in using their pocket veto power.

HCN: Could you tell me which endangered species decisions you're talking about?

TK: Yes, I could. But I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus.

For one of those species, we got an intent to sue and now we’re going to follow a court ordered deadline for listing. In my world, it’s not a big deal if it’s this species we’re going to get sued on or that one, because we get sued so much. In this case, my impression was that knowing it was a controversial decision, they chose not to advance the listing  with the understanding that they would get sued and then be forced to act.

HCN: Obviously there’s some political maneuvering in these decisions, but you don’t feel like there’s been an outsized amount of political influence during the Trump administration?

TK: Frankly, my experience with the Trump administration is not negative. For example, (Interior Secretary) David Bernhardt. On one of our species issues, it was a controversy, and he came in and said: “First, we will obey the law; secondly, we’re going to follow the science; and third I’m not afraid to make hard decisions like list this species, but we’re going to vet this thoroughly, if that’s the way we’re going to go on this species.” I know he’s not popular amongst many of the folks here (a Backcountry Hunters & Anglers conference), and he’s made policy decisions that I disagree with, but I don’t think anyone should question his intent or his integrity.

I can find things that I don’t like, like reducing protections for sage grouse. I don’t like that. The national monuments review — I disagree with that. I don’t think we should be removing protections for national monuments. There’s policy outcomes that I don’t like, but that doesn’t mean that people are bad or wrong. 

They’re in charge, they got voted in. Elections matter.

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, WA.

Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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