In our view: Improve the Endangered Species Act

Many species have benefited, but the act can be made more effective

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Emotional arguments by polarized extremists are not the best context in which to view the Endangered Species Act. Many environmentalists seem to believe the slightest adjustment to the 39-year-old act would trigger the extinction of countless species of animals and plants. On the other hand, many developers seem to believe the national economy will remain paralyzed unless the ESA is abolished. As usual, reality resides somewhere in the middle.

Last month, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., announced he would pursue an overhaul of the ESA, and that public hearings would be held in 2012. Hastings owns that kind of clout because he’s the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The Columbian has long editorialized in support of the ESA, all the while acknowledging that it can and should be improved. A recent editorial in The Tri-City Herald (in Hastings’ district) took a similar stance: “Amending the act to create a better balance between economic and environmental interests isn’t necessarily a bad course. Americans want economic prosperity and preservation of our natural heritage. Those aren’t mutually exclusive goals.”

So we commend Hastings for pursuing the two goals simultaneously. Among his allies could be U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas. Last summer she was one of 37 Republicans to break party ranks and help approve funding that allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue listing new threatened and endangered species. Herrera Beutler also said the ESA “needs to be reviewed by Congress to make sure federal agencies are using the best science in the species listing decisions.”

Exploring the environmentalists’ side of the argument, we find many compelling points, starting with the bald eagle. Only 417 pairs were counted in the lower 48 states in 1976 when the bald eagle was listed as endangered. Numerous protective measures were enacted by the ESA, and today many thousands of bald eagle breeding pairs exists, including several in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, plus several dozen that pass through the area during migration. Because of this stunning success, the bald eagle was reclassified as threatened in 1995 and taken off the list in 2007. And, as we’ve pointed out before, the Yellowstone grizzly was delisted in 2007. Peregrine falcons and gray whales also are no longer endangered, and populations are rebounding among whooping cranes, gray wolves and sea otters.

That track record holds up against the strongest criticism of the ESA. Still listed as endangered are Puget Sound orcas, plus more than two dozen species of salmon and steelhead.

Still, there is room for improvement. Almost 2,000 species of animals and plants have been listed but only about two dozen have rebounded well enough to be taken off the list. As Hastings said in a Boston Herald story last month: “That’s a 1 percent recovery rate, and I firmly believe we can do better … I believe it’s the responsibility of this committee and Congress to ask questions and examine if the original intent of this law is being carried out two decades later.”

This subject is crucial in the Pacific Northwest, the proving ground for public policies regarding the impacts of commerce and urban development on nature. So it’s perfectly permissible to open discussions of changing and improving the Endangered Species Act. Politicians listening to scientists is always a good idea.