ESA little more than a wolf in sheep's clothing

While America was celebrating the cause of Wolf Awareness last week, we should have been popping the collective champagne cork and proclaiming victory in the proliferation of a species that was on the brink of extinction.

However, it is doubtful that the eco-pessimists among us will be making merry. Instead, in usual fashion, they used Wolf Awareness Week to bombard us with adorable pictures of wolf pups in need of expanded Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections, attempting to force the idea that without continued stringent regulatory protections and land use controls on private property, this majestic species will be a thing of the past.

Americans would be better served to understand that the popular cause of wolf protection is less about wolves than it is about filling the coffers of eco-activist groups promoting government control of private property.

Gray wolves were re-introduced in the Pacific Northwest beginning in 1994. Their numbers have proliferated so significantly throughout the West in the years since that the species is no longer considered anywhere near being in danger of extinction.

Yet landowners, ranchers and farmers — in fact, entire communities — continue to be held hostage under the ESA. Land set aside by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) — known as critical habitat — supposedly to help the wolves recover is no longer necessary, yet the FWS continues to keep the designations in place causing financial hardship for people throughout the West.

Earlier this year, FWS finished a mandated review of what protections, if any, the gray wolf still needed. FWS concluded that while certain gray wolf populations merited some minimal level of government protection under the ESA, most did not.

According to FWS, “currently designated critical habitat played a negligible role in wolf recovery” because “gray wolves are habitat generalists, and their numbers and range are not limited by a lack of suitable habitat or by any degradation of any essential habitat features.”

In other words, Nomadic predator animals, like wolves, are not dependent on set-aside lands as habitat, but easily adapt to changes in habitat as long as a food supply is available.

Wolf Awareness Week is perhaps one of the best times to consider the next logical questions: If the habitat area designated by FWS is not critical to the gray wolf’s survival, then why is it still being designated as “critical?”

Wouldn’t FWS’s own analysis lead it to conclude that the onerous burden it places on private property is no longer needed?

Apparently not, because, inexplicably, thousands of square miles of such property in dozens of states remain designated as critical habitat.

Unfortunately, this lack of logic has not only permeated the FWS, but some of our courts as well.

Bent on enforcing feel-good environmental laws, some judges have reasoned that the ESA requires that FWS “shall designate critical habitat” at the time of listing a species.

What these judges sometimes ignore is the other part of what the law says — that critical habitat shall be designated “to the maximum extent prudent and determinable.”

This begs the follow-up question: How can FWS “prudently” determine critical habitat for the wolf when it already knows that such habitat plays no meaningful role in the wolf’s increased numbers?

The answer lies less in the benefit to wolves and more in the power associated with controlling land use.

Unneeded wolf critical habitat has shut down private property use and limited people’s ability to manage their land, adding regulatory costs and forcing housing prices to rise. People are kept off of beaches and out of National Parks.

Are we celebrating yet?

Last week should have been one that helps people understand the positive facts regarding the gray wolf’s proliferation and the agenda of the hardcore environmental organizations that continue to “market” the wolf’s need for ESA protection.

A truly remarkable Wolf Awareness Week would help Americans to understand how these eco-activist organizations abuse the ESA to advance their “species first, people last” agenda.

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Emma Suarez is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation.

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