Save endangered species from environmental regulations

For nearly two decades, ranchers in Montana’s Big Hole Valley have worked with local conservation groups to protect the habitat of Arctic grayling, a rare fish with colorful markings and a sail-like dorsal fin. But if some environmentalists get their way, those voluntary efforts could be in jeopardy.

Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watershed Project sued The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking federal protection for graylings, which could result in costly restrictions on land use by ranchers in the valley. In 2020, the federal agency determined that the fish did not justify inclusion under the Endangered Species Act, citing the success of voluntary conservation measures. But environmental groups—none of which are involved in local grayling recovery projects—to fight that grayling protection requires “regulatory mechanisms” and not voluntary efforts.

Unfortunately, the lawsuit not only undermines decades of good faith compromise, but is likely to harm rather than help fish species.

Arctic grayling once inhabited much of the upper Missouri River basin, but the remaining riverine populations are now almost exclusively found in Montana’s Big Hole Valley. In addition to supporting grayling and other prized fish species, the valley is home to several small farming communities and family cattle farms. Ninety percent of the land along the river is owned by these private landowners, making them key partner in an attempt to recover from June.

In the 1990s, low river flow due to drought and irrigation diversions threatened the grayling population in the Big Hole. In response, some environmentalists began filing petitions and lawsuits to list the grayling under the Endangered Species Act. But this has done more harm than good. Because endangered species listings usually come with onerous land use restrictions, landowners are often reluctant to assist in recovery efforts for fear of being held responsible for harming listed species.

Montana rancher Dave Cameron learned this lesson the hard way. Decades ago, he tried to restore the species to a stream on his property, but became discouraged when he learned of a potential federal listing. “People familiar with the tough approach of the feds advised me to forget the experiment,” he said. told congressional committee in 1995. Other ranchers encountered the same problem, Cameron said. “Why does adopting rare and problematic creatures have to be a threat to their livelihoods rather than a source of pride and satisfaction?”

Recognizing this challenge, local conservation groups worked with ranchers in the Big Hole Valley to develop a creative solution in 2006. Plan, known as Candidate Conservation contract with guarantee, allowed landowners to restore grayling habitat in exchange for protection from future regulatory restrictions. Ranchers who improve stream flows, restore habitat, fence off coastal areas from livestock grazing, or take other conservation measures will not be prosecuted if they unintentionally injure graylings. In addition, ranchers agree to reduce irrigation when the water level of the rivers drops, it helps to strengthen the stream flows when grayling need it most.

The agreement worked well. The grayling population in the Big Hole River has increased by 172 percent since the early 2000s, and the number of breeding adult fish is more than doubled. Today there are 32 landowners entered into the agreementwith estate-specific plans for the benefit of the leeches on more than 160,000 acres of land along the Big Hole River.

Given this success, local environmentalists are wary of an environmental lawsuit and potential federal listing. Most recently former director of Trout Unlimited in Montana He said missoula current that even though the grayling is eligible for inclusion, it would only create “a lot of heartburn and a bunch of angry people.” A member of the local watershed group agreed, saying“If the federal government takes over, you lose all the voluntary protections we have.”

Similar concerns have plagued species recovery on private lands across the country. The threat of endangered species regulation has encouraged landowners to destroy potential habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers, pygmy owls, golden-cheeked cricketand many other types— all in order to avoid the restrictions that could arise if the species inhabits the earth. “The incentives are wrong here,” a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service once said lamented. “If I have a rare metal on my property, its value increases. But if a rare bird occupies the land, its value disappears.” With incentives like these, it’s no wonder only 2 percent of listed species has recovered in almost 50 years since the adoption of the Act on Endangered Species.

Fortunately, changes may be coming. This week, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans encourage more local conservation efforts similar to those that helped grayling. The proposal seeks to streamline the approval process for candidate conservation agreements with guarantees and other voluntary agreements, which can mitigate the perverse incentives of the Endangered Species Act, but often take more than a decade to complete. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the environmentalists behind last week’s lawsuit against the Juneau condemned new proposal.)

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act later this year, it’s worth asking how the law can be reformed to better achieve its primary goal: species recovery. After all, endangered species have it bad enough. We should make sure that laws designed to protect them don’t make matters worse.

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