29 November 2007

Endangered Species Act: the law of the land

[a version of this editorial by me was printed in the Montana Standard newspaper]

How sad, that we the people of the United States must sue our own government if we want the law of the land to be enforced. Whatever happened to the notion that America is “A nation of laws, not of men?” Under the Bush administration, we have become a nation where the executive branch rules with arbitrary and capricious power.

No one disagrees that the Big Hole River grayling (aka “Upper Missouri River Fluvial Arctic Grayling”) is on the verge of extinction. And yet the US Fish & Wildlife Service deemed Big Hole grayling insignificant— ignoring its own scientists, a peer-review by professional fisheries biologists, and the law. The Center for Biological Diversity, along with a group of plaintiffs including me, must sue the federal government to enforce the law.

Blame Julie MacDonald, the Bush appointee who dictated endangered species decisions – including the decision that Big Hole grayling are insignificant – at the Department of Interior. Though MacDonald resigned following accusations of politically bulldogging agency scientists, the damage lingers.

Mike Stempel, a Fish & Wildlife Service administrator, made several outrageous statements in a recent Montana Standard article.

Stempel stated there are 6,000 grayling in the Big Hole River. The truth is, Montana FWP biologists can’t even find enough grayling to estimate the population size. It has declined significantly from an estimate made several years ago of approximately 1,000 breeding age fish.

Stempel stated that the Endangered Species Act is “not the best tool” to protect grayling, and that Montana is doing just fine in restoring the fish. The truth is, Big Hole grayling have declined steadily under Montana FWP management ever since FWP “discovered” the fish were in trouble in the 1970s. At this point, the ESA is the only tool.

I admire the small handful of Big Hole ranchers that have made personal sacrifices in water use in order to help grayling. The simple fact is, however, that Big Hole irrigators (as a group) consistently dewater the river each year: year, after year, after year. Voluntary efforts have failed at maintaining minimal river flows needed to sustain Big Hole grayling.

How sad, that our children and grandchildren may have to venture to Alaska in order to catch a grayling. It is wrong that our government is willing to sacrifice our natural heritage. The Endangered Species Act works, as demonstrated by the success in recovering bald eagles and many other once-rare species.

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