Last Thursday, a bald eagle devoured a goldeneye duck on the ice beside Brennan’s Wave, just downstream of Missoula’s Higgins Avenue Bridge.
Such a sight was inconceivable 40 years ago, when the nation’s mascot was disappearing from its skies and just 12 breeding pairs were known in Montana. The bald eagle was one of the “charismatic megafauna” that helped pass the Endangered Species Act, which soon had more than 1,200 plants and animals under its protection.
In the next few months, people in 10 states will be gathering for bus tours and field trips arranged by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see bald eagles in celebration of the act’s anniversary. Missoulians living, working or studying along the Clark Fork River need only look out their windows. The threatened grizzly bear is the University of Montana’s mascot, and recent GPS data confirm at least two grizzlies have tiptoed right up to the northern edge of the city limits. The confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers east of the city was historically known to the Salish Indians as the “Place of the Big Bull Trout” – another species enjoying ESA protection.
President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law on Dec. 28, 1973, he noted “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.”
The bald eagle came off the ESA list on July 9, 2007. So have the American alligator, two kinds of peregrine falcon, the brown pelican and 31 other species. Seven species, including the Santa Barbara song sparrow, blue pike and dusky seaside sparrow, have gone extinct since they were given ESA listings.
John Melcher was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives when the ESA passed Congress. He was one of 355 votes in favor to four against in the House. In the Senate, the bill passed 92-0.
“It was something that turned out right,” Melcher, who also represented Montana in the U.S. Senate, said from his Rattlesnake home last week. “Nixon signed it – it was one of his better sides. I think he felt good that day. He knew the rationale was right.”
Melcher said the act won such overwhelming support because people understood it provided balance in the natural world.
“I know some people want to get rid of wolverines – it’s not a pleasant animal, but it balances out the rest of the animals,” he said. “It’s a mean son-of-a-gun. It’s not easily liked, but we have to have them. And if you’re not careful, you get out of balance and lose the species.”
We knew so little about that mean son-of-a-gun that the wolverine spent years in the limbo of “warranted but precluded” from ESA protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week announced it is six months away from making a final decision on a wolverine listing. The best available science estimates there are between 250 and 650 wolverines in the continental United States. The biggest slice of that population lives in Montana.
Grizzly bears have grown numerous enough to rattle the ground along the political fault line that runs through the Endangered Species Act. Two weeks ago, a roundtable of state and federal wildlife officials that share grizzly recovery duties formally recommended delisting the bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem around Yellowstone National Park.
Federal estimates put the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population somewhere between 629 and 740 bears. FWS grizzly recovery coordinator Chris Servheen argued before the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee that for both biological and political reasons, the grizzly was ready to stand on its own.
“If we don’t delist when the bears are recovered, that public and political support will evaporate,” Servheen told the committee. “We have to signal a touchdown has been made.”
FWS also is working on a draft delisting rule for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between Glacier National Park and Missoula, where an estimated 930 bears live. Work on that project stalled after independent grizzly advocates blocked the Greater Yellowstone delisting in court in 2009.
Meanwhile, a couple of critters not currently on the Endangered Species Act demonstrate another facet of its influence. Arctic grayling fish and sage grouse are both going through the FWS review process to decide if they should join the list. Making the ESA triggers lots of impacts, including critical habitat designations, required interagency consultations before projects can happen on public land, and prohibitions of the deliberate or accidental taking of the listed species.
The potential for a grayling listing encouraged farmers and ranchers along the Big Hole River in Montana to work together on a water-sharing system that keeps more in-stream flow in tributary creeks where the grayling lives. Landowners who participated in the program earn exemptions from further obligations if the fish receives federal protection.
A similar drama may play out with landowners in sage grouse country. As the bird populations have collapsed through loss of habitat and West Nile virus infection, several states and conservation groups have started recovery programs on their own. They’ve used tactics such as encouraging energy companies to forego leasing for exploration in sage grouse country and buying up underused grazing allotments on public land.
“It’s a good incentive for people to come to the table and craft solutions to keep species from disappearing,” said Derek Goldman of the Endangered Species Coalition in Missoula. “The threat of listing brought all those livestock producers to the table. Some times these efforts work. Sometimes it’s too little, too late.”
Or too much, too soon. Kerry White of Citizens for Balanced Use argues the Endangered Species Act does more harm than good.
“I see it more being used to stop resource development, stop agriculture and take private property rights by environmental groups,” White said from his office in Bozeman. “Take sage grouse. They want to list those, but they have absolutely no idea how many sage grouse are in the state of Montana. If you don’t know how many there are, you don’t know how many you need to hit that target.”
White said the ESA’s limited track record for getting animals and plants restored didn’t give him confidence the sacrifices made to save something would ever be repaid.
“I think it’s well overdue to be repealed, done away with or revamped,” White said. “It’s really having an effect on people’s lives and the economics of small communities.”
Both White and Goldman pointed to the 2010 delisting of the Rocky Mountain gray wolf to make their points. For White, it was how the wolf stayed on the Endangered Species List for years after reaching its recovery threshold of 30 breeding pairs in both Idaho and Montana, because of lawsuits blocking the delisting.
“It finally took an act of Congress to legislatively remove wolves from the ESA,” he said, recalling the rider by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. that exempted Montana and Idaho wolves from further judicial review in 2011.
Goldman agreed congressional intervention was a poor precedent.
“But a big piece of the story that’s lost in the hoopla is the amazing success – we recovered a large carnivore that’s difficult to live with,” Goldman said. “It’s too bad that story is kind of lost in the controversy between wolf lovers and wolf haters.”