Emma T. Suárez
PACIFIC LEGAL FOUNDATION
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
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;
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
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
More than 286,000 acres of private and public lands were
impacted. Grazing, oil and gas development, and other economically
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
Many property owners
who had to put up with the government's woolly-star woolly-headedness
will second the FWS official who
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.
T. Suárez is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation.