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Endangered species threatened by unneeded energy

August 6, 2017 GMT

I think the Endangered Species Act of 1973 has always been one of our most optimistic laws. It says that despite the forces destroying our fish, wildlife, and plants, we cannot only stop it, but reverse it, recovering species from the brink of extinction worldwide.

I am not alone in approving this law. Twenty-one years ago, a national survey showed that only 16 percent of public did not support the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 2015 disapproval of the ESA had dropped to just 9 percent (survey, Tulchin Research). There is no evidence in 2017 public opinion about ESA has changed.

So, it is one of our most popular laws, and it is important to know that those who dislike the ESA are not like most of us. The funny thing about these opponents is that they are mostly not people at all. They are mining companies, oil and gas drillers, land developers, some agricultural organizations, and one huge ideological group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Unfortunately, their small numbers are bolstered by incredible amount of campaign cash and money to buy and influence media by advertising, think pieces, video, web sites — grassroots lobbying to match their everyday lobbying in Washington, D.C., and state capitals.

ALEC is the most powerful of the anti-ESA organizations. It is funded primarily by the multi-billionaire Koch Brothers. ALEC produces its proposed laws. They already written as “model bills.” All a state legislator or member of Congress needs to do is take a copy, fill in a few blanks, and introduce it.

Perhaps a quarter of America’s state legislators now belong to ALEC. Many corporations belong too. It is a shadow political party with more money than either or the Republicans.

Among elected officials almost all ALEC members are also Republicans. The membership list is secret, but some members openly tout their membership. Others hide it. Some even use taxpayer funds from their offices to pay ALEC’s membership dues. I wonder if some of our local state legislators belong?

ALEC is known in the politics of our outdoors as the main force behind the unpopular plans to sell off our national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, etc., and for the concept of abolishing all the larger national monuments. President Trump’s order to Interior secretary Ryan Zinke to review the last 20 years of new national monuments so to abolish them or make them smaller was predated by ALEC model bills starting in 2003.

Now, they also stand behind newly invigorated moves in Congress to repeal or water down the ESA.

Right now, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee is looking at five bills to weaken the Act. There are several issues. The bills would limit or entirely prohibit any lawsuits about endangered species. They would change how species are added to the endangered species list.

Adding species to the list is not surprisingly called “listing.” The ESA says that listing is supposed to be a matter of fact only, not politics. A species is either threatened or it isn’t. It is a fact. Economics – how much it might cost – is not relevant to whether a species is in danger. These bills would make economics a factor in listing. However, economic impacts are considered under the ESA. That just comes later in the process, during the writing of the “recovery plan” for the species. Economics is not ignored. ALEC and other ESA opponents are wrong.

The ESA has a good track record keeping extinction away from species that get added to the list. However, many that are truly in danger do not get past the first hurdle – listing. So, making it harder to list animals and plants by putting more barriers in the way will result in more extinctions.

No doubt as extinctions increase, the law’s opponents will say “it doesn’t work. Let’s repeal it.”

In the past, opponents of the ESA have worked successfully attacking the appropriations to carry out the law. The result has been the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the major agency administering the Act, relies more on regulations (the stick) rather than the carrot of spending money directed to recovering species. Of course, using the stick makes the law unpopular to many of those who are directly affected by it. Is that the real intent of starving ESA’s appropriations?

Most species listed still remain on the endangered or threatened species list, but they have not gone extinct. Some have been declared to be “recovered,” and the special rules and regulations protecting them mostly disappear. The assumption is that the states will protect them so they don’t become endangered again.

Just last week the Greater Yellowstone segment of the grizzly bear population was declared recovered. Now the grizzly in Greater Yellowstone is managed by Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. This could be a chance for the states to shine by showing how well they can do with this very visible symbol of our western wild country. I hope they take it that way.

A number of conservation organizations are suing over the grizzly bear delisting by contenting the delisting plan is not adequate, that the population is more fragile than the government says, and that proper procedures for public comment weren’t followed. Conservation groups fear much of the public land now protected for the grizzly bear, and for other renewable uses too, will soon be thrown open for energy leasing and development by the Trump Administration. The President and the Secretary of Interior are already underway doing this on other public lands.

Increased energy development on their public lands is a policy the public increasingly doesn’t like. Recent polls show they are against it, especially here the West where most of the development would take place. I see it interesting that support for having more public land opened to energy development has gone from a public opinion split to a distinct minority position in the last couple years. There is a 20% gap.

Every year the State of the Rockies project, based at Colorado College, does a “State of the Rockies/Conservation in the West” survey. People in the interior Western states are polled (but note that somehow, they missed polling Idaho!)

The 2017 poll was done by “Republican pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.” They surveyed 400 registered voters in each of seven interior Western states during December 2017 and January 2017.

Here are results regarding energy development (mostly) on public lands.

58 percent opposed transferring control of federal public lands to states.

68 percent said they prioritized protecting water, air and wildlife with opportunities for recreation on public land, compared with 22 percent who prioritized increased production of fossil fuels.

94 percent favored improving and fixing facilities in parks and at other outdoor destinations.

33 percent supported increased coal mining on public lands.

63 percent opposed more coal mining.

34 percent supported increased drilling on unmined public lands, while 62 percent opposed this.

50 percent said oil and gas drilling should continue in some areas while permanently protecting. environmentally sensitive places, while 45 percent said oil and gas drilling on public lands should be strictly limited.

81 percent support the Bureau of Land Management rule requiring oil and gas producers who operate on public lands to use the latest technology to prevent methane gas leaks and capture waste gas. (These data taken from the Feb. 1, Denver Post).

The shift away of Western public support for more leasing and energy development might be due to the public’s experience in Wyoming, Utah, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona with bankruptcy and layoffs of some big coal companies (like Peabody) due to lack of demand for coal resulting from low natural gas prices and suddenly cheap renewables.

Forty per cent of America’s coal production comes from mines on public land, but the demand for acquiring new coal leases is weak, non-competitive even. Forty-four per cent of production also comes from bankrupt coal companies, but no coal production on public land has been stopped because of lack of access to coal.

The weak market demand for additional coal, oil, and gas might be what saves the delisted grizzly bear and other wildlife. Secretary Zinke can hold his energy auctions, but he can’t make companies bid. In general, anti-government politicians might not be the people to use the government to make America a dominant country in supplying energy, even old-fashioned energy from coal.

I certainly hope so for the sake of our wildlife, the beautiful West we live in, and our livelihoods that do not depend on disruptive polluting activities.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie JohnsonMaughan. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.