Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In Case You Were Wondering: There Is No Protection For Endangered Species

I received in my e-mail today an alert from the Center for Biological Diversity which included a short piece (with links) on the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), a species of deep affection for me, personally, and a species listed as endangered with most current data indicating the species is plummeting in near free-fall. The Center is an effective group of scientists and attorneys who advocate and litigate on behalf of species in peril and organize with the public for positive change.

I cannot speak technically on this species. I can, however, speak to the general issue of relocating species. In a word, NO! And I can speak, from extensive experience as a lay expert on land use, to the gutless Endangered Species Act (ESA).

This article reveals the absolute mess made of tortoise "relocation" when, in 2001, the Army was given permission to expand their Ft. Irwin (Mojave Desert, CA) base into critical habitat of this endangered tortoise. The result, now, is that they want to shoot the coyotes that are apparently eating the tortoises as though this is a reasonable or even semi-permanent fix. It isn't reasonable, and it is not even semi-permanent. It is a flawed reaction to a failed plan. Relocation was a "mitigation" for the base expansion's impact on the tortoise--obviously a failed mitigation. Now, that mitigation extends to ameliorate (without study, by the way) the failed mitigation. Given the assumption is that ecological niches are always filled, shooting coyotes won't do a thing, long term, and may actually exacerbate current stresses on other species. It's a ridiculous solution.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that even plant species don't stay where they are put. Animals, wind and water (among other transport mechanisms) don't have rule books adhering to our desires. Nature is what it is. Species live where they can (all things being equal) and don't where they can't.

Add roads, human impact (which, in this case, includes tortoise-squishing vehicles, tortoise-squishing cattle grazing, introduction of non-native species, illegal collecting etc.), disease, predation and natural and unnatural imbalance, short and long term climate changes (e.g. drought) and, frankly, it's a wonder we have what we have at all. Enter protection.

The Ft. Irwin case is just one of tens of thousands of cases where species are NOT protected in situ against the whims of private developers or federal agencies. Prior to the Ft. Irwin debacle, another debacle for tortoises was defeated: The proposed Ward Valley radioactive waste dump planned in what was considered some of the best of the best desert tortoise habitat.

Ask anyone what the ESA actually does and they will predictably say, "Protect endangered species." Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

What the ESA actually does is provide a series of hoops and hops for those interested in killing endangered species for one purpose or another (generally a money-making proposition) which may, in the end, allow them to "take" a certain number of protected species, or, in the very rare case, preclude them from taking at all.

In other words, the ESA doesn't protect anything. It provides a list of endangered species (and one has to successfully petition to get a species on that list which is a huge and time consuming project), provides a process for determining critical habitat for each ESA species (the feds are years behind in doing this, and in many cases have had to be sued to get them to do it), and provides a mechanism and process for getting around having to save anything at all.

I was involved, as a Sr. Campaigner for a national environmental group, with the proposed Ward Valley radioactive waste dump. In that role, I saw exactly which doors were open to the dump developer and which doors were closed to the public by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). While many of the BLM personnel in Ward Valley at that time were adamantly opposed to the dump, personally, they could do little in their positions to stop it. I respected many of them for their honesty and caring and, in one case, their refusal to outright lie.

I am also, currently, involved in another ESA battle on my home turf involving the ESA listed arroyo toad. It has been one travesty after another from the developer (disking, spraying poison), to the county (repeated lying and failure to uphold their duties under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to reveal, discuss and mitigate for the species at all, thus we are on round three of litigation here) and the local Fish and Game and USFWS entities which have done zip.

The lesson? If you care, you have to learn about the status of your species (and in some cases, actually perhaps most cases) and you have to find it, which can be tricky, because the developer sure won't!. You must get your fanny out there and organize around the issue, and you have to raise money to litigate given you have to do what your federal agency should be doing which is using the law to protect the species. Never ever depend on a local, state or federal agency to do what is right. I can tell you, after 25 years at this, they won't or don't.

Recently someone asked me why the arroyo toad couldn't just be relocated. I sighed. Another hour-long discussion to educate someone that was sleeping through their science classes in either high school, college or both.

Which, of course, points to yet another system failure.

Photo: Courtesy of Gary Nafis and CaliforniaHerps.com.