The Endangered Species Act (ESA). The mere thought elicits contempt from ranchers and farmers across America. Many believe no law in the nation does more to jeopardize personal property rights — one of the basic tenets of a free society.

From salmon and spotted owls in the Northwest to red-cockaded woodpeckers and the green pitcher-plant in the Southeast, no state or region is immune to the sting of the ESA.

Originally adopted in 1973, framers of the ESA envisioned a law that would protect species on the brink of extinction. When the law was enacted, 109 species were listed for protection. Currently, 1,244 species are listed as threatened or endangered.

Add to that 213 candidate species and nearly 4,000 “species of concern,” and we definitely have cause for concern. Only 23 species have ever been de-listed — seven due to extinction and 12 due to “data error” — meaning they should not have been listed in the first place.

It's easy to find people of all reaches who know the ESA is not accomplishing its conservation objectives and have found its application to be unnecessarily unfair, inefficient and punitive. Harder is finding consensus among politicians in Washington, D.C., that would lead Congress to fix some of ESA's problems.

“We need some politicians who have the guts to recognize the ESA as it's being interpreted now is far beyond where it started,” says Ron Micheli, director of Wyoming's Department of Agriculture. His state contains 24 listed or candidate species.

One problem Micheli sees is that it takes very little science to list a species.

“All you need is a 34¢ stamp and a typewriter to petition for listing a species,” he says. “We need the burden of science to be on the petitioner. And, we have to be able to de-list species after populations are restored.”

While wholesale reform is not a political option today, recent activities by agencies have Washington politicians taking a new look at listing practices.

Last year, government biologists were caught artificially submitting threatened Canada lynx hair samples for analysis (February BEEF, page 76). One sample from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest came from a survey grid that didn't exist. Another was apparently taken from a lynx named Harry who belonged to a local taxidermist.

The biologists are being accused of “bio-fraud” for planting the hairs in order to skew a habitat survey. Agriculture and Interior Department inspectors general are investigating the case that could affect management in 57 national forests. The Harry incident has also drawn increased congressional interest in the ESA.

This affair comes after a National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition (NESARC) questionnaire showed overwhelming support for revisiting the ESA from congressional respondents representing both political parties. Specific comments from candidates reflect far right and left extremes, but most comments fell into the middle. The majority are in line with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's suggestions to improve the ESA:

  • Provide balance between species protection and recognize the economic benefits and importance of property rights.

  • Strengthen requirements for listing species and designating critical habitat through field-testing and peer review of proposed decisions.

The mood of federal regulators is also being pushed by some recent court decisions. For example, a federal judge has thrown out the threatened species listing for Oregon coastal Coho salmon, saying it was wrong to make a distinction between wild and hatchery fish.

These events and decisions need to be parlayed into a national movement designed to chip away at the ESA's roughest edges. The rules and regulations the agencies must follow in administering and enforcing the ESA can be modified without wholesale reform.

It doesn't take an act of Congress to move from a command-and-control mindset to one of responsibility. But, it does take an educated, level-headed effort — with steady pressure — on our part to make the ESA an easier bolus to swallow.