Eviscerating the ESA 

Wolverine ruling puts politics ahead of science

This week President Obama's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided the wolverine warranted listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That action, in response to a lawsuit by conservation organizations, marks a dramatic turnaround from the agency's decision a mere two years ago that denied protection for these exceedingly rare animals. Unfortunately, wolverines will not be placed on the endangered species list and receive the protection they deserve. Instead, they will join hundreds of other species and continue their one-way march to extinction because the agency claims it doesn't have enough funding.

If you haven't read or seen Douglas Chadwick's most recent book, The Wolverine Way, you might want to ask Santa to stick a copy in your stocking for Christmas. The tome details the fascinating lives of these hardy denizens that only inhabit the highest and wildest areas of the planet. Here in Montana, that means Glacier National Park, one of the few areas in the United States where wolverines still live and where Chadwick joined wildlife biologists to capture, collar and track their incredible travels, making a very convincing argument for their preservation.

Like so many sad cases in our nation, wolverines were doing just fine before the white man "settled" the country. In Michigan, which is known as "the wolverine state" and where the University of Michigan proudly calls their Big 10 athletic teams "The Wolverines," the last living remnants of their namesake animals were spotted two centuries ago. A decade and a half after the state decided it would cease trying to preserve wolverines because they couldn't find any, a lone female was captured on film crossing a field in 2004. But with the death of that animal, wolverines are once again extinct in Michigan.

The reason for the early decimation of the nation's wolverines was, like the bison, the fur trade. Faced with seemingly unlimited populations of animals roaming the continent, the only thing early capitalists considered was how many they could kill and what price they could get for their hides. Only when it was too late in most of the nation did the reality that humans could and would drive other species to extinction dawn upon what we call our civilized society. In response to the wholesale disappearance of even iconic species such as our national symbol, the bald eagle, lawmakers decided to take steps to preserve and restore threatened and endangered species for future generations.

That high and noble logic produced the Endangered Species Act of 1973 along with the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. During its nearly 40 years in existence, the protections contained in that law count among their successes the restoration of the bald eagle, the return of the grizzly bear and the recent reintroduction of the gray wolf to the Northern Rockies. Based on scientific evidence that takes into account known populations, threats, habitat, requirements for genetic diversity and a host of other considerations, plants and animals are weighed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the proximity of extinction and, if they're lucky, get listed for protection and restoration.

But now, thanks to both political expediency and the budgetary black hole into which ongoing wars have plunged the nation, even though the numbers of species deserving protection continues to grow every year, fewer and fewer plants and animals are actually being listed. Instead, as with the wolverine, the agency and the U.S. Congress that funds it, says protection is warranted, but their continued existence on the planet is a cost we just can't afford.

Even worse, we now have politicians like Montana's own Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, who believe it's time to simply remove animals from the Endangered Species List through congressional mandate. I'm talking about the gray wolf, of course, a topic that never fails to spark heated debate these days over their numbers, livestock and wildlife predation, and the subsequent cost to sheep and cattle producers.

What Tester and Baucus fail to consider, however, is the consequences of their actions. If they succeed in pulling wolves from the endangered species list through a simple bill—or more likely, given Tester's recent proclivities, a rider on unassociated, "must pass" legislation—they will set a precedent that will literally gut the ESA.

So let's say someone wants to build a dam, but there's a little fish that would be driven to extinction by flooding its last known free-flowing stream habitat. All it'll take is a ruthless senator or representative driven by the "need" of constituents to develop the dam and that little fish is off the list and headed for extinction.

Or maybe, just to bring it closer to home, massive gas and oil fields that will destroy the final mating leks of the sage grouse or other sage-dependent species with well-pads, roads, pipelines, pumping stations and compressors. If some politician decides "the nation needs the gas and oil," all it takes is a short bill or rider to remove the species from the protections necessary for its continued existence.

Only one thing—like the wolverine, fluvial grayling and hundreds of other species of plants and animals, sage grouse have already been left off the list for budgetary reasons. And that's the rub. We're either going to decide that the animals and plants that inhabit our nation deserve to live or we're going to wipe them out for our own narrow purposes.

The choice is clear. Congress can and should act. At the current level of more than $2 billion a day, only two or three days of military spending would fund the endangered species program into the foreseeable future. The excuse of "budgetary concerns" is simply a sad hoax perpetrated by politicians kow-towing to corporate interests. Unfortunately, between that and legislative manipulation of the endangered species list, this generation is stealing the future from those yet to come.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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