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Endangered Species Act lost sight of its mission

A male greater sage grouse struts at a lek near Henefer, Sunday, April 16, 2006.
A male greater sage grouse struts at a lek near Henefer, Sunday, April 16, 2006.
Christopher Watkins, Deseret News archives

When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, it did so with the intent of preserving animal populations that were facing the possibility of extinction. That’s a noble goal, but the reality of its implementation has been very different from its intent.

A recently released report from the Endangered Species Act Congressional Working Group, which evaluated the effects of the ESA and recommended improvements to the 40-year-old law, found that the ESA has produced an “unacceptable” recovery rate of only 2 percent, and that less than 5 percent of the species still on the list are actually improving. That’s just not good enough.

The problem seems to be that the ESA has lost sight of its original mission. Rather than focusing on the preservation of species, the law has become mired in what the group describes as a “litigation-driven model.”

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who sits on the group, was more blunt, claiming that the ESA “has been co-opted by activist special interest groups as a tool to snuff out multiple use of our lands and resources."

This becomes especially problematic for the state of Utah, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering adding the sage grouse to the endangered species list. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert estimates that listing the sage grouse could cost Utah more than $41 billion in development of natural resources. Since the grouse can be found primarily on private and school trust lands, this would mean that the effect of a listing would be felt by a wide variety of stakeholders. Their activities would be hamstrung in accommodating the ESA’s stringent requirements.

The irony in all this: the sage grouse population increased this past year. This would suggest that an ESA listing is unnecessary. Utah’s efforts to preserve the grouse have resulted in 350,000 acres of improved grouse habitat. Federal government intervention on Utah's work to balance economic concerns with wildlife conservation would be an unnecessary and unwelcome intrusion into the process.

Everyone recognizes the necessity of preserving endangered species, yet as a law, the Endangered Species Act has proven to be inadequate to the task. Conservation and multiple uses are not antithetical. Utah ought to be allowed to pursue both goals without federal interference.