The Endangered Species Act to most Americans is just a law they've heard about, which might even give them a warm and fuzzy tickle deep inside. To many Westerners it's synonymous with tyranny -- an all-powerful presence that licenses the federal government to trample property rights, destroy jobs, obstruct energy development and restrict access to supposedly "public" lands, all to "protect" a subsegment of a subspecies that some graduate student says is rare.
It's the law that eco-Luddites use to dictate public lands policies and thwart any sort of development or economic activity they find objectionable. Discover a new natural gas field in the Rocky Mountain region and in no time flat, almost miraculously, a host of rare plants or animals -- all in dire need of protection -- will be discovered there. It's the silver bullet that can stop any infrastructure project: any roadway, dam, reservoir, power plant, pipeline. Even some "clean energy" projects -- the only kinds of energy projects eco-Luddites embrace -- are being stymied by the ESA. All you need to do is identify something allegedly rare living or growing in the targeted project's vicinity and -- voilà! -- you have a reason to say "no."
So whenever most Westerners read about the latest list of species, subspecies, or "distinct population segments" proposed for ESA protections, they greet the news with dread, not delight. It only evokes glee among federal biocrats (biologist-bureaucrats), who will see their power and budgets enhanced when the listings (and the regulatory controls that come with them) take place, and among eco-Luddites and their lawyers, who will use the listings to destroy jobs, drive up energy costs and thwart progress.
"Twenty-nine species in more than 20 states -- from a rare beach-dwelling plant in Yellowstone National Park to a caddis fly in Nebraska -- may need federal protections to avoid extinction, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," reports the Associated Press. "Fourteen of the 29 species appear in Utah, including 10 plant species and a small silvery minnow called the Northern leatherside chub. The agency said Tuesday that 20 plants, six snails, two insects and a fish may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act."
This stems from a 2007 listing petition made by WildEarth Guardians, which proposed more than 200 new species for protection, most of them in the West. The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected 165 of the candidates and delayed a decision on 38. But the listing of even 29 new species could have profound impacts on Westerners -- and on non-Westerners who get their energy from Western sources -- depending on where the species are found.
Here are the species that made the cut (each of which is of course critical to the survival of the planet):
Yellowstone Sand Verbena in Wyoming
Ross' bentgrass in Wyoming
Hamilton milkvetch in Colorado and Utah
Isely milkvetch in Utah
Skiff milkvetch in Colorado
Precocious milkvetch in Wyoming
Cisco milkvetch in Utah
Schmoll milkvetch in Colorado
Fremont County rockcress in Wyoming
Boat-shaped bugseed in Colorado
Pine springs cryptantha in Arizona, Utah
Weber whitlowgrass in Colorado
Brandegee's wild buckwheat in Colorado
Frisco buckwheat in Utah
Ostler's peppergrass in Utah
Lesquerella navajoensis in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah
Flowers pentemon in Utah
Gibben's beardtongue in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming
Pale blue-eyed grass in North Dakota, Oregon, Washington
Frisco clover in Utah
Frigid ambersnail in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin
Bearmouth mountainsnail in Montana
Byrne Resort mountainsnail in Montana
Longitudinal gland pyrg in Nevada, Utah
Hamlin Valley pyrg in Utah
Sub-globose snake pyrg in Utah
Platte River caddis fly in Nebraska
Meltwater lednian stonefly in Montana
Northern leatherside chub in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming
That you've never heard of these plants and animals is irrelevant. That they may seem laughably insignificant, or may seem related to one another (like the 5 or 6 types of milkvetch included), and that their names may sound funny -- none of this matters under the ESA. That some of these aren't actually species, but subspecies of subspecies, also doesn't matter. Such judgments must be left to myopic federal biocrats, who can't see the implications of anything beyond what's on the microscope, and for whom cost-benefit analysis is an alien concept.
All creatures are created equal in the eyes of the ESA, meaning the Meltwater lednian stonefly is as worthy of protection as the bald eagle or a grizzly bear, no matter the cost to taxpayers, no matter the consequences for land owners. It's arrogant species-centrism to argue that some animals are more worthy of federal protection than others. Noah didn't discriminate; we can't either.
This is the insanity of an environmental law run wild. Yet few in Washington have the courage to admit that it's gotten completely out of control, lest they face the wrath of the Environmental Anxiety Industry. And non-Westerners in Congress have little reason to call for ESA reform, since the law's costs and consequences weigh relatively lightly (at least for now) on their constituents.
Past administrations have tried to slow the listing process down a bit, arguing that USFWS was financially and logistically swamped by the species-related work already on its plate. Much of what the agency should be spending on protection it instead spends on lawyers, to deal with the dozens of ESA-related lawsuits going at any one time. But it's doubtful the Obama administration will show any similar restraint when it comes to listing decisions, given the strong political ties it has to Gang Green.
Budget limitations aren't a reason for the agency not to act under this president. Bureaucratic inertia is the only hope Westerners have of slowing the regulatory deluge that threatens. This is one case in which federal red tape, "analysis paralysis" and the natural lethargy of the leviathan might actually be a blessing.