By: Matthew Roy
Environmentalists and regulators have long used the now 40-year-old Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a tool to obstruct economic progress anywhere that business crosses paths with nature. ESA has been the spring board from which the federal government launches broad, economically-destructive restrictions on people to promote the well-being of animals. Fanatically scurrying to Mother Nature’s defense, powerful regulators clumsily rush hyper-protective regulations that misidentify environmental threats, incorrectly target and restrict benign human activity, and ignore the resulting consequences that Americans suffer.
Take the case of the Northern Spotted Owl. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined spotted owl populations were dangerously low and blamed loggers in the Pacific Northwest for destroying the owl’s habitat. The government seized millions of acres of forests, declaring them protected owl areas. Logging production fell by 90%, billions of dollars were lost, and tens of thousands of blue collar American workers lost their jobs.
This economic damage might be easier to swallow if the government interference helped the spotted owl return to healthy population numbers. The species is actually worse off now after nearly two decades of government protection than it ever was before. Its population has fallen by an average of 3% each year since the regulations were put in place. It turns out that a different owl, the barred owl, has been encroaching on the spotted owl’s territory and occasionally preying on it. Now that the USFWS knows the real culprit is a cousin owl, have they re-opened protected lands for entrepreneurs and unemployed people to create and find opportunity?
No. But they have adopted a new, environmentally-progressive conservation technique — shoot and kill barred owls. That’s right. Because one owl is a potential threat to the endangered owl, it is ok to blast the bad owl with a shotgun. Supposedly this is the environmentally conscious thing to do. But whatever you do, do not mistake a spotted owl for a barred owl. Spotted owls are the good kind of owl and if you harm one the government can fine you $50,000 and throw you in jail. Confused? Allow me to recap. The government can take your property, business, and job to protect a bird, and when their plan fails they can kill birds to save other birds.
Right now in Montana, families and businesses are faced with almost the exact same nonsense. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has created a new plan to lock down millions of acres and stop energy development for the Greater Sage-Grouse. USFWS recently listed the sage-grouse, a bird found all over the western United States, as a threatened species with a low priority for protection. BLM, which already controls hundreds of thousands of Montana acres for conservation purposes, wants to expand their regulatory control to increase protection for the sage-grouse habitat. By their own cost-benefit analysis, their proposed restrictions will block the creation of hundreds of oil and natural gas wells and kill thousands of energy jobs over a 20 year period.
In today’s political climate, job numbers are callously talked about, as if adding or losing thousands has no meaning beyond some abstract economic scorecard. Losing a job can destroy a person’s life and tear apart a family. Think about how much your job — your source of income — means to you and your family. Imagine the indignation and disillusionment you would feel having to go home and face your spouse and children to tell them you do not know how you will pay the bills this month because government bureaucrats decided a bird’s habitat was more important than your life and livelihood.
It is truly unconscionable for a government agency to put the interests of an animal above the interests of people. While there certainly is some societal benefit to promoting species diversity, the standard should not be species protection at any and all costs. Good policy requires that pros and cons be weighed honestly and thoroughly. This is particularly true when the government considers interfering with the lives and economic stability of American people for the sake of animals. After all, our government is supposed to be “by the people, for the people.” It is a shame that they need reminded.