February 3, 2015

The forgotten victims of species protection

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney

Well-doers often forget the costs that the Endangered Species Act imposes on others. The listing of an animal as threatened or endangered saddles people within its range with some heavy burdens. Property owners may lose control over portions of their own property, which they must leave untouched as conservation easements. Farmers risk severe penalties because normal agricultural activities may accidentally harm a protected animal. Ranchers who rely on trapping to protect their livestock face heavy penalties if a trap harms a protected species. For lovers of the outdoors, off-road vehicle access to some areas may be reduced or closed in a protected species’ range. Unfortunately, federal agencies don’t often consider these costs when deciding whether to list an animal as threatened or endangered.

To protect the victims of species protection, PLF has filed a Motion to Intervene in Defenders of Wildlife v. Jewell to support the federal government’s decision not to list the North American Wolverine. In October 2012, a coalition of environmental groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not listing the wolverine. The environmentalists claim that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to rely on the best available science. If successful, the lawsuit would force the wolverine listing.

PLF plans to point out that the Fish and Wildlife Service lacks authority to list the wolverine. The Endangered Species Act allows the federal government to list a threatened or endangered “species,” which includes subspecies and geographic groups of species called “distinct population segments.” In other words, the federal government has authority to list a species that is threatened in the continental United States but abundant elsewhere. While the federal government can list a subspecies or a distinct population segment, it has no authority to list a distinct population segment of a subspecies. Since the proposed wolverine listing would only apply to a population segment of a subspecies of wolverine in the lower 48, the federal government lacks authority to list it. This isn’t just wordplay–that language limits the power of the federal government to burden the lives of everyday people.

The public conversation about the environment should always include the reminder that environmental policies can hurt normal people. Genuine concern for the people affected by species protection should animate any approach to listings under the Endangered Species Act.

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