Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why Fear the Black-Footed Ferret?

I’ve written before about what a mistake I think it is for Fort Carson to volunteer as a testing ground for the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets. I have nothing against ferrets, per se. They seem cuddly and adorable – unless you’re a prairie dog. I just believe American military bases have enough trouble with so-called “encroachment issues” – restrictions on training activities resulting from excessive environmental rules or complaints from NIMBYs – that they shouldn’t invite more of it. That’s exactly what Fort Carson is doing in this case.

Establishing a ferret colony at Fort Carson is just the sort of heart-warming story that earns the base brownie points with animal advocates and environmentalists. It’s good PR. They may rain fire and death on America's enemies, but hey, they're nice to animals. But I fear it will come back to bite the base on the ass if the animals living in this and other experimental colonies win listing as endangered species.

With a listing comes more regulation. With more federal regulation comes restrictions on training. Restrictions on training make bases less useful. Less useful bases end up on closure lists. Closed bases aren’t good for the local economy.

Follow my logic? Folks at Fort Carson obviously don’t.

But maybe this story in the Sept. 8 Billings Gazette will help them see the long-term implications of that they're doing. Here's an excerpt:

Three groups ask feds to protect reintroduced ferrets

CHEYENNE - Three environmental groups say they are petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect reintroduced populations of black-footed ferrets as endangered.

The federal government already protects black-footed ferrets as an endangered species. But it's a Catch-22: The protection doesn't apply to 17 reintroduced ferret populations in eight states, which are the only black-footed ferrets known to exist in the wild.

Instead of being endangered, they are considered "nonessential experimental" populations.

The groups WildEarth Guardians, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and Center for Native Ecosystems want three black-footed ferret populations - in western Arizona's Aubrey Valley, southwestern South Dakota's Conata Basin and southeast Wyoming's Shirley Basin - designated as endangered. The groups announced Tuesday that they had submitted an endangered species petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service . . .

. . . . Black-footed ferrets were believed to be extinct in the wild until a population turned up in Wyoming in 1981. The 18 animals remaining in that population soon were rounded up for a captive-breeding program.

Fish and Wildlife began releasing captive-bred ferrets in Wyoming's Shirley Basin in 1991. Subsequent populations have been established in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Kansas, South Dakota and Utah.

But only the Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming populations in the endangered species petition are considered viable, said Erik Molvar, with the Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.”

Fort Carson’s ferret colony isn’t one of the “nonessential experimental” populations the groups want listed, so the base is in no great danger at the moment. But if this lawsuit succeeds, and if Fort Carson ferrets flourish, it won’t be too long before environmental groups are suing to have this colony listed too. That’s not necessarily the end of the world. A number of military facilities continue to function with endangered species on base. But the work-arounds can be costly and the encumbrances can be significant. It’s not something any base would want, much less invite.

It’s a little dated, but here’s a piece I did on the encroachment problem at American military bases back in 2001: link. I think it’s safe to assume things have gotten worse since then. Endangered Species Act rules have become a nightmarish fact of live at many facilities. But this is the first time I’ve seen a base actually courting such problems, thanks to such a stunning lack of foresight.

As the case of the Canada lynx shows, there’s a game of bait-and-switch being played when it comes to experimental populations of endangered species. The federal government promises that the normal regulations and regulations won’t apply at the time of reintroduction. But once the animals are established, and the listing petitions and lawsuits start flying, such agreements aren’t worth bupkis. Colorado agreed to host an experimental population of Canada Lynx back in the Bill Owens era, based on assurances that a tidal wave of new rules wouldn’t follow. But today you have “lynx habitat” being used by federal agencies as a reason to limit ski resort expansions and stop forest thinning projects. The old promises mean nothing. Colorado is being punished for showing the lynx a little compassion.

If Fort Carson commanders are smart, if folks in the Pentagon are smart, they’ll start looking for reasons to quietly back away from this animal rescue mission, which is unrelated and potentially detrimental to the facility’s main purpose. There are better places to put ferret colonies. And there are better uses for military bases.

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