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Guest Contributor
Emma T.

No Toasts Please...
...for the Endangered Species Act's 30th Birthday...
[Emma T. Suárez] 12/10/03

For thirteen years, a lot of people in California's Central Valley were put through a lot of costly hassles because federal officials decided to protect an "endangered" flower that, it now turns out, isn't anywhere near extinction -- and never was. This saga of bureaucratic bungling carries a blunt moral: federal endangered species law desperately needs reforming.

Lovers of flora naturally admire the simple nobility of the Hoover's woolly-star, an annual herb with gray fuzzy stems and tiny white to pale blue flowers. But sound science never dictated that this plant, which flourishes up and down the Valley, should have been classified as "threatened." That was the designation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1990. Recently, the bureaucrats backtracked, removing the special protections and admitting they were never needed.

So how did this non-threatened plant make the "threatened" list? The answer exposes the serious defects in the 30-year-old federal Endangered Species Act. Billed as a shield for vulnerable animals and plants, the ESA is too easily used as a sword by anti-growth forces. Clumsily written, it invites the cynical use of "junk science" to justify labeling hale-and-hearty plants and creatures as "endangered" in order to sideline housing construction and other land use projects.

For instance, the ESA doesn't require up-to-date research on a species' status before an official prognosis can be made. Old studies -- or studies from a different geographical area -- are considered good enough for this kind of government work. Moreover, there is no requirement to take account of economic impact, so species safeguards aren't tailored to minimize the hit on jobs.

In the case of the Hoover's woolly-star, regulators decided that it was "threatened" based on surveys that looked only at limited regions and that had been conducted during a Central Valley drought. You might wonder how trained federal botanists could have missed the elementary biological principle that vegetation will drastically fluctuate depending on the annual rainfall, but that's the long and short of what happened.

In rushing to declare this herb as imperiled, government biologists also failed to consider that it's not on the menu of sheep, cows or other herbivores; that it can be found in varied landscapes and locations, from the Mojave Desert to coastal mountains; and that, all in all, it is remarkably resilient, capable of withstanding heavy foot and hoof traffic. Populations have been identified in Kings, Los Angeles and San Benito counties. In the Central Valley, it spreads like a weed after rains.

All this the FWS now, belatedly, acknowledges -- after a decade of hyper-regulating lands and landowners. This new realism is cold comfort for those who chafed under the regulations for so long. More than 286,000 acres of private and public lands were impacted. Grazing, oil and gas development, and other economically beneficial uses of public lands were curtailed, and expensive, taxpayer-funded monitoring programs were imposed. Private landowners had to tiptoe around the protected herb or risk high fines or even jail time.

Many property owners who had to put up with the government's woolly-star woolly-headedness will second the FWS official who recently called the ESA a "broken law." The 30th birthday of this statute would be a time for celebrating -- if Congress recalls it for a major overhaul.

Emma T. Suárez is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation.




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