The hammer that never fell

 

Twenty years ago, I got into an argument with a wildlife biologist over the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists, he said, were abusing the law in their quest to create an ecologically pristine West devoid of loggers, ranchers and other salt-of-the-earth Westerners. By relentlessly pushing the federal government to protect ever more species and habitat, and then suing when they didn’t get their way, they were paralyzing already-strapped federal agencies and alienating the green movement’s natural allies — namely, the ranchers who control so much of the West’s prime wildlife habitat.

I pointed out that without the law, and the environmentalists who were using it, logging companies would have razed the last remnants of ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest without a second thought, wiping out not only the northern spotted owl, but also a whole range of species that depend on that ecosystem. In the process, they would have destroyed the resource base of their own industry. The law, I argued, is necessary: How else can citizens put the brakes on ecologically mindless exploitation?

We never came to agreement, but a decade later, in 2002, the themes of our debate resonated in High Country News’ first major story about  “the next spotted owl,” the greater sage grouse. From a scientific perspective, the finicky denizen of the West’s rapidly declining “sagebrush sea” clearly qualified for federal protection. But a listing could mean new restrictions for energy companies and thousands of ranchers across 11 states.

Many predicted a political fiasco that would simply encourage Congress to gut the law, but 13 years later, as Senior Editor Jodi Peterson reports in this issue, something remarkable has happened: Instead of hunkering down for an endless legal battle, ranchers, biologists, land managers, environmentalists and even energy companies are working together to conserve and restore millions of acres of private and public lands for the bird — and by extension the ecosystem it depends on. The progress, led by far-sighted biologists and greased by millions of taxpayer dollars, has been so rapid and extensive that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says her department will do everything in its power to not list the bird, whose status comes up for re-evaluation in September.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may eventually be forced to list if the grouse’s numbers — now around 400,000 — continue to decline. But even if that happens, Peterson says, the work already done by the diverse stakeholders will serve as a solid foundation for any federal recovery plan. There should be few surprises, and less of a reason for the usual fear-mongering over-reactions.

That our nation’s strongest environmental law might function better as a catalyst for ecosystem-wide conservation than as last-minute CPR for individual species is a development that I imagine my debater of yore would wholeheartedly embrace. It is surely a sign that the West is finally maturing.

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