The law of unintended consequences: what the ESA needs, it takes, but what about other priorities?
While an essential goal of the Endangered Species Act is to increase attention to the endangered and threatened species, compliance with the law also leads to unintended consequences. The problem stems from a simple fact: increased ESA demands do not equate with increased government agency resources. Three news stories this week highlighted the tensions between the ESA demands, and the other competing needs, priorities and duties of state agencies.
With longfin smelt now protected in California, and new state incidental take regulations in place, Central Valley water management became even more difficult for the California Department of Water Resources. "DWR estimates the emergency regulations have the potential to reduce state and federal water project deliveries up to 1.1 million acre feet, or an additional 17 percent in an average water year." See also, San Diego Union-Tribune. Meanwhile, in Wyoming, the state's four-man wolf management team is expected to be officially disbanded Monday, because the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is recommending to the Game and Fish Commission that it re-assign two of the department's remaining three wolf specialists. Finally, in Western Colorado, the Colorado River Basin is the exclusive habitat for the endangered Colorado Squaw, Humpback Chub, Bony Tail Chub and the Razorback Sucker, four species preyed upon by non-native species like Cat Fish, Small Nosed Bass, and Northern Pike. As a result, a Federal recovery program is using electric currents to eliminate the non-native species, but in the process, it also destroys the edible recreational fishery -- leaving anglers angry with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and raising questions about the use of taxpayer dollars.
On any given day, perhaps even with any story about any one of the hundreds of listed species in the U.S., other state agencies would have similar stories to tell. Because with each decision related to the listing, critical habitat, survival and recovery, or incidental take of any endangered or threatened species, state agencies must dedicate their limited staff time, effort and dollars to the species on the brink. Meanwhile, other needs, and especially other species -- admittedly, species in less dire conditions -- receive less management attention. It is the sad necessity of the ESA: endangered and threatened species usually come first (exceptions for national security aside.) But one day, the ESA may be forced to admit a need to set priorities. With number of ESA-listed species ever growing, and indeed, with global climate change threatening an explosion in threats to species, the absolute demands of the ESA could become increasingly difficult, or even impossible, to bear. When that day comes (assuming it hasn't already), and in the absence of increased funding, a triage system becomes inevitable.
According to the U.S. Department of Interior, the number of adult humpback chub, Gila cypha, in Grand Canyon stabilized between 2001 and 2005, and perhaps even increased in 2006, after years of decline. Supporters of the ESA could point to the law, and its focus on the need for protection of the fish, as one of the reasons. The unanswerable question, however, is what trade-offs were made to achieve that success? See also, ESA blawg (July 16, 2008)(on research program for endangered black-footed ferrets).