Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ferreting out Trouble

On the one hand, one has to wish the black-footed ferrets well that are being released into the wild on Fort Carson, in an innovative collaboration between the base, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They're such cute little buggers. No one wants to see them go extinct.

But the success of the reintroduction program could become a nightmare for property owners, ranchers, local governments and the state of Colorado as a whole, if these ferret populations flourish and migrate beyond the base, given the regulatory controls and property rights violations that follow endangered species wherever they go. If the test colony survives on Fort Carson, the plan is to replicate the experiment elsewhere. "If successful, the release could be a blueprint for other locations on the Front Range and eastern plains," reports The Gazette. And once those populations are established, they'll need to be protected by a "critical habitat" designation and a host of land control regulations that come with it.

Such is the nature of the Endangered Species Act. And this will have profound implications for everyone living, and working the land, along the Front Range.

Colorado got sucked into a similar situation in the case of the Canada lynx. The state agreed years ago to host a reintroduction effort, which is ongoing, with the condition that the feds wouldn't bring the full weight of the ESA down on our heads if it worked. But once the cats, which had been erased from the state, were back, the rules of the game changed. The fact that Canada lynx are back in the state now becomes a factor in almost every U.S. Forest Service decision. Those wanting to block expansion of the ski area at Wolf Creek, for instance, or to dictate a host of other public lands decisions, can and will use the lynx as a pawn in that effort. Check out this story in today's Vail Daily. And one can predict a similar scenario unfolding in the case of the ferrets.

How might a growing population impact training at Fort Carson? What will it do to ranching on the eastern plains? How will it impact local land use rules along the fast-growing Front Range? All these issues need to be thought out and debated in advance, but they aren't. I follow these issues closely and this is the first I've heard of the black-footed ferret recolonization plan. It seems to have been hatched quietly, by a handful of government insiders. But the potential wider implications haven't been debated, and can't be well understood, by Coloradans as a whole.
Perhaps Fort Carson officials and folks at U.S. Fish and Wildlife have penned a memorandum of understanding -- at least I would hope they have -- ensuring that training can continue as usual, even if the base is crawling with ferrets. But what assurances do the rest of us have that doing the right thing now won't come back to haunt us in the future? None whatsoever.

And even if someone gave us such assurances, what faith could we have that they would be fulfilled, given that any such agreement could be taken to court and overturned by a judge, at the behest of the unreasonable people who use the ESA as a tool to curtail development, block water and energy projects, bludgeon property owners, etc.? Such guarantees aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

So while we should wish this experimental little colony of black-footed ferrets well, we should also monitor this effort closely, and with concern, given that no good deed goes unpunished under the ESA.

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