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Know the West

The cost of righteousness


I have a friend named Gina who is a great marriage counselor. Gina is roly-poly and effervescent -- her mere presence disarms uptight people. With a Ph.D., an M.D. and decades of experience, she's an empathetic listener, expressing just enough of her own opinions to create a genuine conversation and strive for breakthroughs. She's very effective in advising people on how to get along.

Contrast Gina's interpersonal strategy with that of Kierán Suckling, the director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which endlessly cranks out lawsuits to enforce the Endangered Species Act:

"(Lawsuits) are one tool in a larger campaign, but we use lawsuits to help shift the balance of power from industry and government agencies, toward protecting endangered species," Suckling told HCN in 2009. "By obtaining an injunction to shut down logging or prevent the filling of a dam ... we are in the position of being able to powerfully negotiate the terms. ..."

Suckling's group often wins in court. But instead of helping various parties come to an agreement, as Gina does, Suckling wants to steamroll opponents: "New species listings and new bad press take a terrible toll on agency morale. When we stop the same timber sale three or four times running, the timber planners ... feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed -- and they are. So they become much more willing to play by our rules. ... Psychological warfare is a very underappreciated aspect of environmental campaigning."

Suckling's warlike strategy doesn't characterize the environmental movement as a whole, but it's shared by enough groups to shape the general public misperception that all environmentalists are determined to get their way regardless of the costs to other people's livelihoods and lifestyles.

Our cover story by seasoned wildlife writer Hal Herring explores the drawbacks of the lawsuit strategy, through the example of wolves in the Northern Rockies. Many groups pushed lawsuits for two decades to help wolves get re-established in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, but they caused a new surge in anti-wolf -- and anti-environmentalist -- anger. So politicians of both parties united to strip Endangered Species Act protections from most Northern Rockies wolves, effective May 5.

Meanwhile, one Western group that has filed lawsuits on behalf of hundreds of species -- WildEarth Guardians -- reached an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on May 10: That group offered to limit further ESA legal actions for six years, to allow the agency time to decide the fate of 251 wait-listed species. Predictably, Suckling's group has challenged the compromise.

Does the future of wolves seem iffier than ever? Hunters in Montana and Idaho will probably reduce the wolf population initially. I'm betting that, as the locals feel they have more control, the anger will recede and more people will accept wolves as natural wonders, creating a community spirit that can preserve them. Gina would approve.