- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

DENVER — For years, Alan Gardner has watched Easterners tie up land and scuttle development in the West by asking federal bureaucrats to put various rodents, predators and pests on the nation’s endangered-species list.

Now it’s time for a little payback.

Mr. Gardner is leading a band of 13 commissioners from Western counties who have filed to seek protection for a rare new species: the northern snakehead fish, also known as the ?Frankenfish.?

Yes, Mr. Gardner understands that the carnivorous, Asian-bred fish not only can swim but also crawl across land and wreck havoc on local wildlife. And no, he lives nowhere near the Potomac River, where the snakehead makes its home — and that’s the point.

“As I read about this fish in the Potomac, I thought, ‘You know, that sounds like an interesting proposition,’” says Mr. Gardner, a commissioner in southwestern Utah’s Washington County.

“I discussed it with some other commissioners, and we thought that this could really let people in the East know how the Endangered Species Act works and how it can affect the lives of everyday people,” he says.

Sure, saving the Frankenfish is preposterous. But not much more so than some previous attempts to list species found in the West, says Roger Mancebo, a Pershing County, Nev., commissioner.

Mr. Mancebo cites the recent effort to win protection for the sage grouse, a bird so common that it’s hunted in 15 states.

As rural Westerners can attest, having an animal listed as endangered can have a huge downside for the locals.

In their application on behalf of the snakehead, the commissioners identify its habitat as a stretch of freshwater and land covering 68 million acres and cutting across 11 Eastern states and Washington, D.C.

In the unlikely event that their petition is approved, the snakehead’s hangouts would come under strict restrictions on building, transportation and recreation in the name of protecting the famous fish.

“Anywhere you’ve got an endangered species, it very much limits what you can do,” Mr. Gardner says.

Ken Burton, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman, notes that one impediment is that the snakehead already has been declared an injurious species, preventing it from being listed as endangered.

“An injurious species is any species that the secretary determines is harmful to resources, other wildlife, forests or agriculture,” he said.

But, Westerners ask, what about the listed gray wolf and grizzly bear?

“There’s harm, and then there’s harm,” Mr. Burton says.

“There’s a lot of living things out there that can inflict harm,” the Fish and Wildlife spokesman adds. “Then there’s these foreign species that come in here, and frequently, there’s nothing in the wild to counterbalance them.”

Since gray wolves were flown in from Canada to Idaho and Montana in 1995, they have killed about 100 cattle and 400 sheep.

“We might call a wolf ‘injurious,’” says Don Davis, former commissioner of Rio Blanco County in Colorado. “A wolf is injurious for a rancher and for wildlife.”

The commissioners are having a bit of fun with their snakehead application, but John Kostyack, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, finds no humor in their cause.

“It’s clearly an abuse of the law,” Mr. Kostyack says. “No one recognizes the snakehead as endangered, and everyone sees it as a growing threat to our watershed.”

Mr. Gardner points out that the effort is bipartisan — with six Democrats and seven Republicans backing the petition.

“What was really amazing to us is the biology we presented on our petition amounted to a biology professor pulling information off the computer,” Mr. Gardner says. “And we had one comment from Fish and Wildlife saying that this was some of the better biology they’ve seen on an application.”

The House and Senate are considering proposals to overhaul the Endangered Species Act.

“With a rearranging of the act, we can protect more species without all this money being spent on bureaucracy, lawsuits and courts,” Mr. Gardner says.

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