While the U.S. Senate unanimously proclaimed May 11 as "Endangered Species Day," a celebration of America's commitment to protecting unique wildlife, others are not so quick to rejoice in the Endangered Species Act's impact - particularly on private property rights.
The Senate resolution encourages a noble cause for all Americans to "become educated about, and aware of, threats to species, success stories in species recovery, and the opportunity to promote species conservation worldwide."
But private property rights activists, largely farmers and ranchers, say the law is onerous and useless because only a handful of species have ever recovered to the point they no longer require protection.
Opponents of ESA say its one of government's biggest "takings," as farmers and ranchers face fines and imprisonment for even the most basic farm practices if federal regulators believe such actions disturb endangered species. Currently landowners receive no compensation for lands that must remain idle or restricted. Loggers claim to have lost millions in production and lost jobs. And, farmers have been cut off from irrigation water to protect "endangered" fish, which were later determined to be genetically identical to the farmed species.
"There are a number of incentives for farmers to be proactive with the ESA," Todd Willens told journalists at a BASF sponsored Ag Media Summit in Washington, D.C. last month. Willens is the senior policy director for the U.S. House Resources Committee. "If we don't do something now, Congress will miss a major opportunity for change. We currently have the political will with Chairman (Richard) Pombo. We don't want this to disappear, it's not an easy vote, not an easy subject and it's hard to understand. But, I do believe the Senate will be taking this up and farmers need to be heard."
Richard Pombo, a California rancher who is chairman of the House Resources Committee, has been one of the act's fiercest critics. In1995 he accused the "arrogant" U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of trying "to make California farmers vassals of the federal government" by enforcing the statute.
Originally adopted in 1973, the act's framers envisioned a law that would protect species believed to be on the brink of extinction. When the law was enacted, there were 109 species listed for protection. Today, about 1,300 species are on the list with 250 considered as "candidates" for listing, and nearly 4,000 species designated as "Species of Concern."
Willens says the law is incredibly far-reaching and powerful. "There is not a department it does not touch," he adds. "In the reauthorization bill, we have a number of issues dealing with science. The bill also requires the act to be more transparent. The act has traditionally been operated within the confines of D.C. and the bureaucracy of an administration and certain offices. Its power has been expanded through litigation and judicial direction."
The act, Willens says, operates under the guise of preventing extinction. "That's great. But, of the 1,300 domestic species listed, only 10 have been recovered - that's less than a 1% success rate," he add. "We could be doing better and working cooperatively with local entities for species that no longer need to be regulated by Federal government."
Supporters of the act say only 2% of the listed species went extinct after listing, while the great majority increased in number and are on the road to recovery. They also add that the act has successfully prevented the extinction of hundreds of species, including the bald eagle, whooping crane, grizzly bear and Pacific salmon. Challengers say ESA is not to credit, and that those species benefited from other activities such as the banning of DDT. Only 40 domestic species have been "delisted" or removed from the species list since 1973 - nine due to extinction and 16 due to "data error," meaning they never should have been listed in the first place.
While Willens says there is no chance for a complete repeal, there are certain provisions being considered, including recognizing private property rights and issuing first-time notices, allowing a certain amount of time for the landowner to respond before legal action.
There also is debate about rewarding or compensating landowners, particularly if the act devalues property by at least half its value, and providing management assistance for the protected species.