Soft-path approach to saving species

  • Hank Fischer

    Glenn Oakley

Note: this article is one of several in this issue about the Endangered Species Act.

"Hank Fischer: least popular man in Montana," shouts a 1978 headline in High Country News.

The 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 life.

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. Fischer disagrees.

"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 reauthorization.

"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 approach.

"When we introduced the wolf compensation fund, it created a whole different climate where the polarization just disappears," he says.

The same 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."

Fischer says the government could use tax breaks as a method of distributing the subsidy: Good ranchers pay less tax, bad ones pay more.

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 equal?

"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."

Learning from wolves

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 livestock.

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 ecosystem.

"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 adjustments."

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