Is There a Lesson Here?
For the first time ever the United States Congress is acting to legislatively remove a species from the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That action, contained in the big budget bill negotiated last week by the president and congressional leaders, has bipartisan support. Idaho’s Mike Simpson, a Republican, joined with Montana’s Jon Tester, a Democrat, to attach the wolf delisting provision to the budget bill.
The entire debate about wolves, dating all the way back to then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s speeches during the Clinton Administration, may be an object lesson in what happens when common sense packs up and leaves the room.
This has been about the most polarized policy/political issue in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as we’ve seen in a long, long time. Few involved haven’t been tainted by the emotions, legal and political posturing and insistence on an “I win therefore you must lose” approach. What has been missing is one word – balance. Or maybe two words – common sense.
Ironically perhaps one of the more sensible voices in the overheated wolf debate has been that of now-retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf expert Carter Niemeier, an unapologetic wolf advocate, who has written a book about his experiences dealing with what he has called the polarizers at both ends of the debate.
Niemeier takes the sensible approach that wolves are here to stay, but they also need to be managed.
“A hunting season will take some of the pressure off wolves,” he told the Missoulian recently. “Sportsmen will be able to do what they think they can do about controlling numbers. The uniqueness will eventually wear off.”
“How many wolf pelts does anyone need to hang on their wall?” he asked.
Niemeier adds, “There are so many wolves now that poaching would never harm them. They are here to stay.”
Idaho Statesman environmental reporter Rocky Barker neatly summed up how national environmental groups mishandled, misread and ultimately misfired in their handling of the wolf issue.
“If you came up with a scenario to undercut the machinations of national environmental groups you couldn’t have done better than the real events. First, they won a lawsuit that they could not defend politically. Then they tried to get a do-over with a settlement that handed power to the very states they had been saying could not be trusted to manage wolves,” Barker wrote this week.
“Needless to say many of the people who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to these groups because they love wolves are unhappy and some feel betrayed.”
With the Simpson-Tester rider sure to pass in the “must pass” budget bill, environmental leaders were left to complain that the legislative delisting undermines the scientific integrity of the ESA. But wolves have always been more about politics than science and the wolf advocates got beat playing both politics and public relations. In the end, if this mess opens the door to more congressional meddling with endangered species, the no compromise wolf advocates may have themselves to blame.
With Sen. Tester facing an extremely tough re-election next year and Rep. Simpson, as he frequently does, playing the common sense card at the very time Idaho legislators were passing a bill declaring a wolf emergency, it’s not surprising that these two wily politicians did what legislators do. They fixed a political and policy problem. Both had substantial motivation, especially Tester. His likely opponent in next year’s Montana senate race is Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg who has championed legislation to delist wolves everywhere in the lower 48.
Reasonable voices that might have long ago settled all this with compromise and common sense, as Carter Niemeier suggests, left this debate a long, long time ago. Not surprisingly the courts proved to be a singularly inappropriate place to hash out what had become a red hot, emotional and political issue.
I find myself hopelessly in the middle when it comes to wolves. I like the idea that wolves roam the Idaho backcountry as they once did. I also think their numbers should have been rigorously controlled at the state level much earlier. I also think no one really calculated whether the food supply a growing population would need could be readily available. As a result, I think the too large populations have caused significant damage to livestock and wildlife populations. I think ranchers need to be compensated for loses and hunters deserve thriving elk populations. I don’t think wolves, properly managed, present much threat to people.
As I said, I’m a squishy moderate. I see all the arguments.
It’s probably hopeless naive of me, but I wish a few folks early on could have found a sensible way to reintroduce, manage the populations, stay out of court, defuse the polarization and move on.
One way or another, I guess we now have.
While the legislative delisting of wolves is a first, it’s not the first, nor will it be the last, congressional intervention on ESA issues. In 1979, Congress acted to exempt the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee from provisions of the ESA. Much of the debate involved the cost-benefit of Tellico versus the survival of a tiny fish, the snail darter. For a time, the fish became a useful tool to stop the questionable dam and promoted amendments to the ESA, including the creation of a seven-member Cabinet level committee, dubbed the God Squad, with authority to exempt a federal agency from provisions of the Act.
Then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus chaired the first God Squad to assess whether the dam should be exempt from ESA requirements. The committee was unanimous in denying the exemption on economic rather than environmental grounds. Andrus said at the time, “I hate to see the snail darter get the credit for stopping a project that was ill-conceived and uneconomic in the first place.”
But, with snail darters and wolves, Congress had the last word when legislation was approved not to delist the snail darter, but to exempt Tellico from the Act.
Ironically, then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker invoked wolves in his floor debate arguing for the exemption.
“Now seriously Mr. President,” Baker said, “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else.
“We who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”
Some debates just never end.