Governors will soon reveal results of a year-long initiative to improve proactive conservation of our country’s most at-risk species
In the hunting community, the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken have recently become the face of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). When these game birds were petitioned for listing several years ago, because their populations had declined dramatically due to habitat loss, it was arguably the first time in recent memory that popular game species required this kind of action.
Sportsmen understood what was at stake—losing the opportunity to pursue sage grouse and lesser prairie chickens would come with a full-blown listing. Industries and ranchers feared for their bottom lines, and livelihoods, too. Some pointed to the listing of the northern spotted owl, which brought a region and an industry to its knees in the 1990s. All sorts of political posturing and litigation ensued—in fact, it continues today, even after final decisions were made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in March 2014 and to forgo a listing of the greater sage grouse last September, based on the strength of collaborative conservation efforts from sportsmen groups, state and federal agencies, and private landowners promising to take widespread protective action.
There are wide-ranging opinions on the ESA, and it’s easy to get swept up in all the controversy and ignore the original intent of this critical legislation, which is to protect ecosystems and imperiled species from human development and other threats. The finger-pointing and contentiousness could make us forget that careful management by fish and wildlife agencies and the $1.6 billion dollars that hunters contribute annually to conservation is meant to keep us from the precipice of listing species in the first place.
Many decision-makers have called for reforms to the ESA. Congress has long suggested opening the Act, and some lawmakers would certainly use Paul Bunyan’s axe rather than a scalpel on certain provisions. So, it may surprise you that the Western Governors’ Association (WGA), a group of lawmakers who definitely have a vested interest in the ESA and its influence on the states, are not answering the call of some in Congress who want to tear down the legislation entirely.
The WGA, under leadership from Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and his staff, has spent the last year exploring ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Endangered Species Act, while elevating the role of the states in species conservation. The group held several workshops across the West to bring diverse stakeholders to the table, where they shared their opinions and ideas on the ESA’s use, misuse, effects on the economy, and actual impact on the ground. The results of these workshops will be unveiled next week at the annual WGA summer meeting in Jackson, Wyo.
This should be encouraging to sportsmen, because whether or not the ESA should exist is not the right question. We need legislative checks and balances to conserve wildlife and habitat while allowing for other uses of the land to continue—history has proven that. Using the expertise of the people who rely on these lands, the Western governors are exploring not only how to improve the ESA, but also this: How do we shift from reacting to conservation crises requiring need for the ESA to launching proactive conservation measures that ensure we never get to crisis mode?
I generally agree that some reasonable reforms could likely improve the effectiveness of the ESA, but I also strongly believe that the very best solution for improving the Act is to avoid having to use it in the first place. This is where sportsmen are a very real part of the process and need to engage. And conservation efforts to benefit the greater sage grouse should be the model we celebrate. The future of species conservation has to focus on proactive, collaborative conservation efforts similar to what was recently accomplished for the sage grouse.
But until sportsmen, industry, private landowners, wildlife advocates and other non-consumptive users can take the proactive initiative to prevent these threats from happening in the first place, the regulatory hammer of the ESA remains necessary to force conservation into action. Until we make conservation a long-term investment, and no longer a nice thing to do only when discretionary funds are available, we can’t give into reforms that would weaken the ESA.
Shifting from reactive to proactive action will require change. The WGA has kickstarted the conversation, and now we need to incentivize a new way of doing business for all stakeholders. A key challenge will be securing investments in conservation and engaging stakeholders early in the process, so we’re pointed toward a common goal. Sportsmen can and should help move this revolution forward. Let’s start using an ounce of prevention, rather than paying for a pound of cure.