LAS VEGAS -- The Endangered Species Act is a "nonsensical" policy that hurts businesses, property owners and farmers to protect animals and plants that may not be at risk, a panel of Democratic and Republican governors from throughout the West said Wednesday.
The governors complained of having their hands tied by federal policy as animal populations described as thriving but listed as endangered ravage private ranches, state parks and golf courses.
"The frustration level is reaching the breaking point in many levels because of this act," said Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert. "It's nonsensical."
On the panel, the Republican governor griped about protecting Utah prairie dogs digging into golf courses. "They have become so domesticated, they are just a pain," he said.
The discussion about overhauling the Endangered Species Act came on the second day of a two-day conference of the Western Governors Association. State executives from 19 states, plus the U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, were invited to attend.
Federal environmental officials acknowledged the law's challenges and slow-paced evolution, but largely aimed to rebut complaints and praise a conservation policy that seeks to protect nearly 2,000 species of birds, insects, fish, mammals, flowers and trees.
"Does the act always work perfectly? No," said Eileen Sobeck, the deputy assistant secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "Do the successes under the act outnumber the problems? I think they do."
With its plentiful plains and rich wildlife, endangered species protections remain a testy issue in the West.
Hunters and ranchers, a powerful constituency in the Mountain West, have called for delisting recovering populations of certain species such as gray wolves and grizzlies. They contend that the federal policy affects the value and sovereignty of their land and threatens livestock. Western governors insist states, not federal regulators, should have authority over native species that affect local habitats and create business hurdles.
"We are pretty good at managing our wildlife," Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana said.
Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have been in negotiations with the federal Interior Department to remove wolves from the endangered species in recent weeks, but talks have since stalled.
The region's 1,700 wolves lost their endangered status in Montana and Idaho in 2009, but were returned to the endangered list this year after a lawsuit brought by environmentalists.
Wildlife advocates argue that while recovering species have thrived under the law's protection, their existence might again be threatened if they were delisted.
Idaho Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter said the law has pitted business owners against government enforcers. The Republican suggested the federal government instead encourage land owners to protect endangered species on private land through financial rewards.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana said that the wolf population in the West has fully recovered and should not be on the list, but federal regulators have been reluctant to reconsider the endangered designation.
"The goal is to recover, not to hire more lawyers," Schweitzer said. "The law is broken."
Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming said there is little trust or cooperation between federal officials writing the laws and state leaders required to enforce them.
"We pay for the band, you call the tune and then you tell us how to dance," he said. "That is not really a partnership."