- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

P.T. Barnum allegedly once observed, "A sucker is born every minute."He would have doubled that estimate if he had heard about the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Quadrupled it if he had heard how Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agents applied on the Oregon-Northern California border last summer. Those agents turned off irrigation taps for Klamath Basin's drought-stricken farmers in the belief that low water levels would cause "irreparable damage" to the three threatened/endangered species of fish the Lost River sucker, the shortnose sucker, and the Klamath Basin coho salmon that reside therein.

That tap turnoff made suckers of the area's farmers, who had foolishly believed they could continue tapping into waterways that had been open for almost a century. As a result of being suckered in such a fishy way, more than 20 farmers in the region may lose their lands. The region as a whole was suckered for at least $135 million in economic damage, according to estimates by the University of California at Berkeley.

That would have been bad enough, but then an interim report on the matter by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released last month revealed that the FWS agents who ordered the Klamath water shutoff had been suckered by bad assumptions. Specifically, NAS scientists found that there was "no sound scientific basis" for the cutoff that neither suckerfish nor salmon would be harmed by low water levels.

Can anything be done to avoid suckering citizens through the ESA? To answer that question, the House Committee on Resources convened a series of hearings. One of the most important, on reforming the ESA, is scheduled for today.

The committee will hear testimony on two bills, one is sponsored by Oregon's Rep. Greg Walden, whose district was severely affected by the suckerfish fiasco last summer, and the other by Rep. Rick Pombo, California Republican, whose constituents have also been made suckers of ESA abuses. Both call for essentially the same thing: That the interior secretary use the best science available when implementing the ESA.

This seems obvious, but it obviously wasn't to the ESA's writers, perhaps they were politicians, not scientists. As a result, almost any habitat can be designated as critical for endangered or threatened species. Resources Committee Chairman Rep. James Hansen, Utah Republican, even unearthed a 1998 memo from an official in the National Marine Fisheries Service, who declared that in the case of the salmon, "We just designate everything as critical [habitat]."

Sound science should also seem to dictate that the number of endangered critters existing in an area be calculated, especially when any actions are anticipated to affect (meaning, in ESA-speak, kill) them. That's harder than it sounds, since figuring out a suckerfish population, for instance, would be enough to send anyone to school.

Besides, it simply isn't enough to just take a head, or at least, fin, count. Critters are constantly subject to all sorts of stresses, both manmade and natural, so their numbers will always vary from season to season. A given species is simply a small part of a much larger food chain, and a reasonable understanding of those interactions (which fish are eating which fish, which birds are eating which fish, etc.) is necessary for counts to be at least marginally accurate.

Iceland, which carefully regulates stocks of several fish species in the seas surrounding it, could serve as a model in at least some respects. Of course, all this will require time, and money, but when the baseline isn't sound, as it certainly was not in Klamath, the result is an expensive suckering of citizens.

That course might not always be avoidable, as Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Resources Committee, inadvertently pointed out in a press release passed out at last week's committee hearings addressed specifically at solutions in Klamath. Part of Mr. Rahall's release read, "In the case of the Endangered Species Act, … as is the case with any environmental law, the agencies do not have the luxury of waiting until they have all the science, but must instead rely on the science available to them and then err on the side of protecting the species."

That presumes the agencies' actions actually will protect the species. However, as a 5-year-old, but still relevant, study by the National Wilderness Institute (NWI) pointed out, the ESA tends to make suckers of threatened species. The study concluded, "The ESA has entirely failed to lead to the recovery of endangered or threatened species."

The reason is both bad bait and bureaucratic bungling. As James Streeter, NWI policy director, noted: "The ESA doesn't work as a conservation measure in part because it has the incentives all wrong. If you have endangered species it punishes you instead of rewarding you."

ESA compliance can carry huge costs, as the suckered citizens of Klamath Basin could attest. Yet even if species were actually protected by statutes based on sound science, it still shouldn't come at all costs. After all, the safekeeping of species (including the cute ones) is, or at least ought to be, merely one of the many goals of policymakers intent on maintaining a more perfect Union.

Until federal regulators are forced to use sound science in the pursuit of species preservation, myopic mandates like the ESA will continue to make suckers of us all.

Charles Rousseaux is an editor for the Commentary pages and an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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