Most farmers don't have anything against protecting endangered wildlife. It's just that they can't see much future in trying to save the red cockaded woodpecker or the mountain plover or some other species at the expense of their own.
But farmers are willing to manage their resources for preservation efforts if they can be shown they will truly make a difference in their survival, a representative of the American Farm Bureau Federation told members of the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water.
Testifying at a July 13 hearing on reforming the Endangered Species Act, Colorado Farm Bureau President Alan Foutz recounted the role farmers in his state played in helping ensure the mountain plover remained a viable species.
The mountain plover is a small shorebird found in the western Great Plains that was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, more than 25 years after Congress first passed the law in 1973.
“As with many such species, little was known scientifically about the bird,” said Foutz. “It was believed that conversion to agricultural lands destroyed plover habitat, and it was feared that a listing would have severe impacts on agriculture.
“Scientists really didn't know much about the bird, however, because it was believed that many lived on private lands and private landowners were reluctant to let state or federal officers onto their land. But they also did not want to see the plover listed without scientific justification for listing.”
Deciding the issue had to be resolved, the Colorado Farm Bureau began working with landowners, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and the Nature Conservancy to open their lands to the inventory and study of mountain plovers.
“Convincing our members to open their lands to researchers was a tough sell, not because our members did not want to protect and enjoy plovers on their lands, but because of the restrictions that would be placed on their lands if the species were listed and their land identified as habitat,” said Foutz. “To our members' credit, they recognized the need for good scientific information.”
Over the next three years, Colorado Farm Bureau members provided access to more than 300,000 acres of private lands for studying the plover. They also donated their time as field volunteers in the research effort.
Researchers found that rather than destroying plover habitat agricultural lands actually provided important nesting habitat for the species and that many of the practices that would have been restricted under an endangered species listing actually were beneficial for the plovers.
Farmers also worked with researchers to develop a way to prevent the destruction of plover nests by farm machinery.
“Farmers are more than willing to avoid nests, but they often cannot see them while operating large machinery,” said Foutz. “To remedy that situation, the Farm Bureau and Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory developed a unique program.”
Farmers call a toll-free number 72 hours before plowing, and the Observatory sends someone to survey the field and flag plover nests so that equipment operators can avoid destroying them.
As a result of those efforts, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing the mountain plover was not warranted and withdrew the proposal. Farmers were able to continue their operations and the plover-nesting habitat was enhanced by certain agricultural practices.
Foutz said Colorado farmers and the Colorado Farm Bureau learned some valuable lessons from this experience. “First, we demonstrated that farmers will work to protect species and are willing to meet halfway if government officials are also willing to meet halfway.
“Second, flexible cooperation between landowners and the services is the best way to make the ESA work for landowners and promote species recovery. Third, we all learned that practical solutions to potential conflicts do not need to cost a fortune. Lastly, we all learned the value of obtaining good scientific date to combat real problems, not hypothetical ones.”
While Foutz was not the only witness testifying before the committee, his comments echoed the complaints congressional critics have leveled against the Endangered Species Act. Chief among those is the ESA's poor success rate.
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee, recently released a report that said the federal government is making scant progress in the area of species protection and recovery.
“The Endangered Species Act's less than 1 percent success rate for species recovery is a well-documented and readily-available statistic, but the status of the remaining species on its list has not been as clear until now,” he said. “This exhaustive review of government data makes it clear the vast majority of these species have not improved under implementation of current law.”
Pombo said the Resource Committee's oversight and investigation staff spent months researching and reviewing Federal Register notices, agency expenditure reports, data from Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Reports to Congress and dozens of critical habitat designation economic impact statements and recovery plans.
“The ESA has not achieved its original intent of recovering species,” Pombo said. “In fact, there is little evidence of progress in the law's 30-year history. After this review, no reasonable person can conclude the ESA is sustainable in its current form.”
The review shows that after 30 years only 10 of nearly 1,300 species have recovered and, in many cases, the ESA was not the primary factor in the recovery — as was shown in Foutz testimony on the mountain plover.
According to the Fish & Wildlife Service's most recent report to Congress, 77 percent of listed species are classified in the FWS' lowest recovery achieved category, having met only 0 to 25 percent of recovery objectives. Only 2 percent fall into the highest recovery achieved category, having met 76-100 percent of recovery objectives.
Of the 33 species reclassified by the FWS in the Act's history, only 10 domestic species were downlisted — from endangered to threatened — because the species had improved.
Pombo said that at least 15 of the 33 domestic species that have been delisted in the Act's history were removed from the list because of original data error, and erroneous data was a contributing factor in at least 10 of 19 of the downlisted species.
Expenditures by federal, state and private parties on species listed based on erroneous data could total hundreds of millions of dollars, funds that could be otherwise directed to species that are actually endangered or threatened.
“The current program clearly costs billions of dollars, but insufficient economic information is collected to reasonably determine the true cost of the law, as all federal, state and private expenditure reporting cannot be assessed,” said Pombo.
Witnesses testified at that hearing that lawsuits involving endangered species and habitat protection have tied up construction projects and cost jobs in the timber and other agriculturally related industries.
“Given the act's poor recovery rate, the pool of future possible additions — FWS now recognizes an additional 283 species as candidates for listing — litigation demands and conservative consideration of cost data, the current program is not sustainable,” says Pombo.
(The Fish & Wildlife Service's current litigation workload for listing and critical habitat includes 34 active lawsuits with respect to 48 species, 40 court orders involving eight species and 36 notices of intent to sue involving 104 species, according to the House Resources Committee.)
Republican members of Congress aren't the only ones calling for a rewrite. The Boston Herald recently said the law is clearly in need of a major overhaul.
“There's a good argument that the 1973 act actually is now hurting the protection of nature's most fragile creatures because some landowners ‘shoot, shovel and shut up,” it said in an editorial. “That is they kill any species of interest, bury the carcass and say nothing.”
The Colorado farmers who worked on the mountain plover represent a distinct break with that philosophy — if it ever really existed, says Foutz. But he deplores situations in which the ESA pits landowners against the government.
“This solution would not have been available to us if the mountain plover had already been listed,” he says. “Under the ESA, once a species is listed, Section 9 — taking prohibitions — and Section 7 — consultation requirements — impose restrictions that stifle the kind of creative solutions that we employed to assist the mountain plover.
“The ESA needs to be amended to provide flexibility to farmers, ranchers and the government to enter into voluntary agreements to protect and enhance already listed species on private lands in return for some incentive for the landowner. We have proven that farmers and ranchers want to protect species.”