Senator Barrasso has proposed legislation to transfer Endangered Species Act (ESA) decision authority from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to state governments, and the Trump administration is trying to change ESA rules to give states more control. Meanwhile, at the University of Wyoming, Professor Temple Stoellinger recently published a law review article posing the question: “Wildlife Issues are Local – So Why Isn’t ESA Implementation?” It’s a fair question, with an obvious answer.

Prof. Stoellinger (nee Stevenson) served as a Natural Resource Policy Advisor for the State of Wyoming under Governor Freudenthal from 2004 to 2010, and later worked for the Wyoming Association of Counties, so her bias toward state and local control of wildlife should come as no surprise.

Western Watersheds Project, for which I work, is a nonprofit conservation group with a bias toward giving rare wildlife and plants strong protections once they reach the brink of extinction. Our very mission is to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife. Stronger protection means faster recovery and thus healthier native ecosystems. Thus, if state management of endangered species would really result in better protections and faster recoveries of rare species, we’d be the first to advocate for it.

You might have noticed that we’re not on this particular bandwagon.

The reason is pretty simple: States are under constant political pressure from the very same local industries that caused wildlife to decline in the first place, and when they bow to these pressures (as they do all too often), extinction can result. The Endangered Species Act provides a legal guarantee that all decisions regarding listed species be made solely based on the best available science, which excludes political meddling. State decisions put politics first and all too frequently ignore or undermine the science.

In 2007, the State of Wyoming initiated a collaborative process to devise a state sage grouse conservation plan. They started out from the science, then made concessions for various industries to get their buy-in. The oil industry got to carve out all the highest sage grouse population hotspots they wanted to drill in the future (including the Atlantic Rim, one of the three biggest sage grouse concentration areas in the state), where they wouldn’t have to play by the sage grouse conservation rules. For the remaining Core Areas, the oil industry demanded (and got) to shrink buffers around leks to only 0.6 mile; 3.1 miles is the absolute minimum supported by the science. And Big Oil forced disturbance caps to be increased to 5% (despite no science showing this is compatible with maintaining sage grouse populations). Conveniently, this disturbance threshold allows the standard full-field development that is driving sage grouse extinct in the first place. Livestock grazing, listed as a principal threat to sage grouse habitats by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, became a “de minimis” activity under the Wyoming plan, left completely unregulated. If the sage grouse is ultimately listed under the Endangered Species Act, Wyoming’s crippled sage grouse standards will be ‘Exhibit A’ in how state and federal agencies pushed aside the science and paved the road to extinction with false intentions.

In 2004, Wyoming’s Governor Freudenthal petitioned to de-list the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, and hired a consultant named Rob Roy Ramey to re-evaluate its genetics hoping to show that it wasn’t a legitimate subspecies. Ramey’s genetics experiments purported to show that Preble’s genetics were indistinguishable from those of the nearby Bearlodge meadow jumping mouse. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service smelled a rat, and repeated Ramey’s genetics experiment on the exact same museum specimens. This time, the genes showed a very distinct difference between the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse and its more common cousin. A five-scientist expert panel was then convened to investigate the discrepancy between the two studies, and Ramey’s samples were found to be “contaminated” with genetic material from Bearlodge meadow jumping mice. Ramey was disgraced, his results were discredited and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse remains under ESA protections to this day.

We have no reason to believe that Prof. Stoellinger created these anti-conservation outcomes, but she certainly should be aware of them. We are explicitly suggesting that some states simply can’t be trusted with species on the brink of extinction because they’ll go to all sorts of lengths to ensure that politics, not science, dictates whether they get protections or not.

This is not just a Wyoming problem. The Gunnison sage grouse was listed as threatened in Colorado, even as state officials protested that state and local regulations – rarely if ever enforced – should be a “get out of ESA protections free” card. And in Utah, the administration of Gov. Herbert has been so hostile to conservation that its state sage grouse plan was repeatedly rejected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (even as they gave the nod to the science-deficient Wyoming plan).

Some states probably have strong enough standards and ethics to be trusted with conservation of species on the brink of extinction. And the Endangered Species Act provides for state management of listed species, where state plans meet or exceed ESA standards of protection. But for Congress to move Endangered Species responsibilities from an agency staffed by wildlife professionals to states with such dismal track records of conservation is irresponsible.

The Endangered Species Act has saved 99% of species ever listed from extinction. States already have a meaningful (often excessively influential) role in recovering these plants and wildlife. Science is the driving factor behind decisions on listing and recovery of our rarest species, and this is as it should be. Some 90% of Americans fully support protecting our imperiled species under the ESA.

In Wyoming, there is a saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Currently, lawmakers aren’t really trying to fix an Endangered Species Act that’s not broken. They’re trying to break a law that’s working exactly the way it was intended to.

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Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as Executive Director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation organization working to protect and restore watersheds and wildlife throughout western public lands.


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