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Commentary: Johansson: ESA must work better for species, people

Issue Date: October 10, 2018
California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson, second from left, testifies on the Endangered Species Act during a House Committee on Natural Resources hearing in Washington, D.C.

In California, battles over everything from spotted owls to delta smelt have reshaped rural communities and, sadly, have created tremendous conflict--all this with little to show in improvements for protected species.

This culture of conflict and lack of success is evidence that conservation is at a crossroads. We can either continue down the path of escalating conflict and seemingly endless cycles of listings and lawsuits, or we can take a long, hard look at what the past 45 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act can teach us as we strive to make the ESA work better.

The law can be better for species, whether listed or unlisted, and better for people, whether farmer or conservationist. There are three reasons this is the case.

First, we all value protecting species from extinction. Our disagreements are not about the goal of species protection, but the best way to achieve that goal.

Second, there is widespread acknowledgment that the ESA can be improved to work better for species and people.

Third, the key to the ESA working better is improving opportunities for collaborative conservation by reducing conflict and increasing regulatory certainty.

Currently, landowners view the ESA as a threat. The history of the ESA has generally shown landowners that having species or habitat on their land creates risk and provides no real benefit.

Perhaps no species is more symbolic of the ESA's challenges than the northern spotted owl. Listed as threatened in 1990, this listing reshaped the Pacific Northwest and the ESA. Thriving rural communities lost a significant portion of their economic base because of the costs and restrictions placed on timber harvest. As much as any other species, the spotted owl proved to landowners that endangered species and their habitat were major hazards to be avoided.

And yet, the spotted owl is still not doing well. The primary threat now appears to be the barred owl—a species that over the past century has expanded its range, outcompeting, breeding and killing the spotted owl.

The listing harmed our rural communities. The ensuing battles weaponized the ESA and led to the creation of a massive industry of conflict—and the spotted owl is worse off.

Another example is the crippling effect litigation over the delta smelt has had on California's water system. Questionable science has focused regulatory controls on California's state and federal water projects, because this is the easiest "knob" the regulators have had to turn. Litigation-focused advocacy groups have also turned the smelt into a weapon in court to further their own agenda.

The real causes of the smelt's decline, however, are much more complex. In fact, one of the biggest causes appears to be an invasive clam that has wiped out the smelt's primary food supply.

The best science today suggests any threat from the water projects can be managed without eliminating the water supply to cities and farms. Working with water users and landowners to improve habitat and food supply are the more effective "knobs" we should be turning.

In Northern California, farmers and ranchers worked for decades to benefit salmon and steelhead. Millions have been invested in fish screens to prevent juvenile salmon from being pulled into water diversions. Significant amounts of water historically used for irrigation and municipal supply have flowed through the Bay-Delta and out to sea, in an effort to improve salmon survival.

These efforts have not had the intended effect of increasing salmon populations. Instead, we are finding that collaborative efforts to allow juvenile salmon to spend time in flooded rice fields have a much better effect than simply keeping more water in our river systems.

While the spotted owl and delta smelt are stories of how the ESA has failed people and species, the monarch butterfly could shape how we approach conservation in the future. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to list the monarch in 2014 and agreed to make a decision by June 2019.

We are striving hard, as are many conservation groups, to find solutions that work for species and people. While we believe the solutions to improve monarch habitat are feasible, it is clear the ESA is not flexible enough to ensure those collaborative conservation efforts are not derailed by litigation.

For landowners to work collaboratively to conserve species, they need to know at the start what will be expected of them, and they must be confident the rules are not going to change once they are in.

We are now choosing on which path to move forward. To do nothing is to reject decades of lessons from applied conservation and continue down the path of conflict-based environmentalism that developed in the 20th century, failing species and people alike.

We have another, better option. We can take a hard look at the lessons we have learned and forge a path toward conservation in the 21st century that works with farmers and ranchers, not against them.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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