With July 4th on the mind, here’s a question to ponder as you hang your red-white-and-blue bunting on the porch: what do the founding fathers have to do with the Endangered Species Act, a bedrock environmental law passed two centuries after the Declaration of Independence was signed?
If you’re running for your high school history book, here’s a hint: remember “checks and balances”? The founding fathers set up a system of three separate branches of government – judicial, executive, and legislative – each with checks and balances ensuring equal power among the branches. If one of the branches of government overreaches, the other branches can check its power. That’s how it was set up, and that’s how it still works.
And what about the Endangered Species Act? If you’ve picked up a newspaper in the Northern Rockies during the past year, you’ve probably read an op-ed parroting the claim that environmentalists are ruining the Endangered Species Act with lawsuits. In a selfish campaign that erodes public support and agency cooperation, the argument goes, environmentalists want to keep species on the endangered species list forever, at all costs.
Could this really be true – that the main goal of conservation groups is to keep species listed as threatened or endangered forever, regardless of how well their population is doing?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is still no, and it’s a false choice between keeping species on the list forever or stripping their Endangered Species Act protections under any circumstances possible, even if their populations face an uncertain future, with inadequate management plans or with climate change and habitat loss threatening their numbers.
For NRDC and other like-minded conservation groups, our main goal is to see species managed according to scientifically-based standards that ensure a stable future for the population and its habitat. It doesn’t mean they should stay on the list forever, nor does it mean they should be rushed off the list at the first signs of preliminary recovery.
In practice, this means that we sometimes have to file lawsuits when species or populations are prematurely removed from the list, before they are fully scientifically recovered, before there are adequate state management plans to replace federal management, or before new issues like the impacts of climate change have been addressed. Yet that’s why conservation groups – and the Endangered Species Act – get a bad rap.
At recent a meeting of grizzly bear managers, a lawsuit that restored Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s grizzlies was repeatedly referred to as “legal interference,” and once even as “a morass of legal interference.” That’s the reputation that the Endangered Species Act suffers. But what this one agency official called “interference” is really a textbook application of our time-tested system of checks and balances.
What went unsaid was that conservation groups sued because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately consider the catastrophic decline of whitebark pine, a key grizzly food source, and there were inadequate mechanisms in place for the states to regulate activities that would impact grizzlies – which the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to consider when de-listing a species. Yellowstone’s grizzlies were returned to the endangered species list because a federal judge (the judicial branch, for you history buffs still following along) ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (executive branch) actions violated the law.
And that’s the way it’s supposed to work – just ask the founding fathers.
Photo credit: Robert C. Angell