The recently concluded conference of the Western Governors' Association issued a strange resolution asking Congress to make significant changes in the Endangered Species Act to give more power to the states in administering this critical federal conservation law. But while Montana's governor lauds its success in keeping sage grouse, western cutthroat trout and fluvial arctic grayling from being listed as endangered, the truth is that none of these species are anywhere near recovered. The governors have confused conservation plans with actual species recovery, which puts their cart before the horse in demanding changes to the longstanding and successful Endangered Species Act.
It's not unusual for governors to feel they know more about their states than federal bureaucrats – and in many instances, that's true. But when it comes to endangered species, there's simply no doubt that governors are more than a little susceptible to making decisions not based on hard science, but on an amalgam of partisan politics, public perception, lobbying from affected economic sectors, and the constant pressure of either seeking re-election or, as Montana's Gov. Steve Bullock has now decided, broadening their influence and ambitions to the national level. When the combined power of extractive and development industries are compared to saving some fish, bird or plant from extinction, the “balance” gets radically tipped by the heavy thumbs of those extractive industries.
Yet, despite these well-documented pressures that inevitably wind up reducing the measures believed necessary for species preservation, the governors — except for California and Washington — want the Endangered Species Act amended to enshrine their foibles in law. In a sign of even worse judgment, the governors are urging this Congress and president, arguably the environmentally worst in recent history, to do the amending. As California's Gov. Jerry Brown wrote in declining to sign the resolution, “the current climate in Congress is marked by chaos and partisanship. This climate will not result in good conservation policy.” Given dismal public approval polls for Congress and Donald Trump, Brown got it exactly right.
For those who remember when grayling were fairly common in the Big Hole River, or flocks of sage grouse rose into the sky over the prairie, or how easy it was to catch cutthroat trout in Montana, there's no conceivable reason to conflate the present state of these species with any kind of conservation victory. It simply isn't so. Instead, we have remnant populations hanging on for life.
The proof? Fluvial arctic grayling, whose last remaining population in the Lower 48 dwells in Montana, now occupies a stunning 4 percent of its original habitat, which means 96 percent has been lost to pollution, development and ever-warming rivers. Likewise the westslope cutthroat trout, Montana's state fish, is struggling to exist in just 3 percent of its historic range. Sage grouse still exist in about half of their historic range, but their numbers have dwindled from millions to a few hundred thousand due to habitat destruction from development, oil and gas facilities, and eradication of sagebrush for livestock.
Given the daunting habitat loss facing an increasing number of species, as well as the brutal effects of global warming, the Endangered Species Act is working as designed to save plants and animals during what has been called earth's “sixth great extinction cycle.” The last thing we need is for an anti-conservation, anti-science Congress and president to “modernize” the law. And until those species the governors are calling “successes” are actually recovered, it would be best not to demand even more state latitude in administering the Endangered Species Act.