Why the Endangered Species Act Is Such a Failure


Santa Fe, N.M.--We are fond of proclaiming that ours is a government of laws. But there are times when we expect too much of laws and not enough of ourselves. This explains the depressing failure of the Endangered Species Act.

In the United States, we have caused the extinction of 500 of our bird and mammal species. Another 500 are in trouble, probably terminal. One of every seven of our plant species is at serious risk. Since its passage in 1973, the endangered species law has divided the nation while documenting our accelerating failure to save species. It is a stunning dud.

Recent proposals to save the Pacific salmon by listing it as an endangered species pose no threat of reversing this track record. Less than 1 percent of the remaining sockeye and Chinook salmon find their way from the Pacific Ocean, up the Columbia River, through the dams and irrigation systems and home again to their spawning grounds in places like Idaho's Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

There, poor grazing practices cause stream-bank instability. Sediment from the resulting erosion smothers fish eggs and interferes with spawning. Since the federally financed dams won't move, the federally subsidized ranchers must. That's the way the too-little-too-late Endangered Species Act works.

Yes, we can raise salmon in hatcheries, but domestication and zoo life drain the value of the wild out of big, fierce species at or near the top of food chains. (Hatchery-bred salmon, for example, literally can't go home again and thus lose their ability to reproduce in the wild.) Though it's bad business to admit it, an increasing number of conservation biologists feel that top predators are already doomed, victims of a downward genetic ** spiral -- inbreeding -- and loss of crucial habitat.

Put another way, the listing proposals for the salmon, like those for the spotted owl, would disrupt an entire economy in the Northwest to protect a terminal species. If you doubt this outcome, consider the fate of the Mexican wolf or lobo, one of the rarest and most endangered animals.

There are about 40 lobos left in captivity in the United States. Perhaps 10 exist in Mexico's wild. You can find lobos today near where Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management, lived in the early part of this century. At the Albuquerque Zoo, you can stalk one of the last lobos -- pacing, pacing, pacing behind the walls of a mighty stockade designed to protect us from each other.

Or you can attend a "bring back the lobo" meeting at the Museum of Natural History nearby, where you can participate in another stalemate all too typical of the Endangered Species Act. At the museum, you can push a button. Stuffed wolves howl, mechanized dinosaurs roar. You can buy both in the museum store.

What you can't buy, what Uncle Sam cannot and will not give you, is a lobo worth the name. Thanks to Leopold's pioneering work, wildlife belongs to the state, not to individuals. The zoo lobo belongs to a captive population that may someday seed "recovery" in the wild. But where is "the wild?" Can the lobo go home again?

The center of its former range is in southwest New Mexico, the Gila National Forest that Leopold loved. Today, this forest resembles Kuwait before the Persian Gulf War: It is ringed by heavily armed ranchers who graze their cattle at below-market prices on public lands. "Shoot, shovel and shut up" is the final rancher solution to the lobo problem.

The last wild lobo in the United States bit the dust around mid-century, after the New Mexico Stock Growers Association decided to get serious about its competition. The growers evoked a time-honored Western tradition: They "asked" the federal government for help.

Unlike New Mexico's Indians and Latinos, who settled near the rivers, these Anglo ranchers marched into lobo land (protected from the Apaches by federal troops), where they felled the forest, shot the deer that were the wolf's prey and brought in as many sheep and cattle as they could. The ensuing free-for-all started the desertification of the West. What was not worth taking became public land.

The dust from this disaster bred conservationists like Leopold and Theodore Roosevelt. The next time anybody bothered to look, America had a series of national forests, ringed by private ranches on the better, lower lands.

Political deals were made, with grazing fees for the perpetual and exclusive use of adjacent public lands set laughably low. A lobo population that never exceeded 1,500 became an easy target. The lobo's highly developed social system made systematic slaughter simple. Taxpayers' strychnine, poison gas, traps and guns did the dirty work.

This federal program, now called Animal Damage Control, continues today targeting whatever ranchers consider a threat to the sacred cow. Such is the genius of our Western way of politics. One hand of the federal government kills everything wild. Another "recovers" species. Another pays ranchers and loggers to make sure "recovery" fails. Once the lobo was "listed" as an endangered species in 1976, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service moved as slowly as possible to obey the law. Now it may be too late.

In 1982, the Endangered Species Act was amended to allow the wildlife agency the God-like power to create "non-essential" and "experimental" populations of endangered species. The absolute value of a species can now be compromised in the interests of "managing" recovery.

Translation: If a tattoo-tongued, micro-chip-manacled, radio-collared, satellite-tracked lobo should somehow escape its confines and kill a stray cow on public land, the government presses a button and kills the lobo by remote control.

Isn't that wild?

On the other hand, if a wild lobo kills a cow, no one can (legally) kill it, since it is a listed endangered species.

Isn't that wild?

By the way, Uncle Sam pays the rancher for the cow. Stalemate for environmentalists. Checkmate for the lobo.

Surely there is a better way. Surely politics and the courts are not the only ways of capturing and conserving the value of wild wolves, Pacific salmon, grizzly bears and the spotted owl. Remember capitalism?

The solution lies in that grand American institution, the free market. Time is short. If we environmentalists are so concerned about endangered species, then we should buy out the cowboys and raise wolves on our own.

Think of the savings in federal taxes. Think of the improvement in local tax bases. We should also change game laws so that private groups or individuals can own wildlife. We should simply -- that is, privately -- buy the habitat for these species and recover them ourselves.

We'll never save all endangered species. If we are serious about saving any, we need to make big changes in the ways our resource bureaucracies manage public lands and subsidize their traditional users. We need to create markets for environmental values. We need to stop asking Uncle Sam to act as cop and financier. I still believe the lobo is recoverable, but only on a big private preserve like the Nature Conservancy's 500-square-mile Gray Ranch in southwest New Mexico.

What's the alternative? Having endured the zoo lobos and stuffed museum lobos. I'd see the lobo die first rather than live this way, hooked up to the Rube Goldberg life-support machine we call the Endangered Species Act.

Where we can, we should avoid pitting the federal government )) and its environmental allies against local economies, as in the case of the Pacific salmon. On the other hand, we should remove the life-support systems from terminal economies like public-land logging and grazing.

Instead of "saving" all species by "listing" them and provoking divisive fights, we should recognize that some species are already as biologically terminal as some cancer patients. The road to the hell of extinction is paved with good intentions.

Tom Wolf has worked for the Nature Conservancy in Wyoming and New Mexico. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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