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, [email protected]

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Stephen Stuebner

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -