- - Thursday, May 31, 2012

At a recent three-day hearing before an Idaho federal district court on whether the court should restrict oil, gas and ranching activities over a vast area of federal land in western Wyoming, an expert summoned by the environmental group that had filed the lawsuit testified, “The greater sage grouse is one stochastic, catastrophic event away from extirpation in Sublette County.” That the moment passed without the judge, lawyers and spectators convulsing into laughter indicates just how absurd what passes for scientific debate about the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has become. After all, everything on the planet is “one … catastrophic event” away from annihilation.

Sadly, the outcome of that hearing, following briefings last month, is deadly serious. At risk are the future of energy development in Sublette County, which contains two of America’s largest producing natural gas deposits, and the fate of family-owned ranching operations. It is just the beginning; the Sublette County case involves only one of 16 federal planning areas, covering 25 million acres in six Western states, in the Idaho court. Worse yet, environmental groups demand the sage grouse’s accommodation, regardless of the cost to humans and other species, all across its former range: 156 million acres in 11 Western states. In response to one such plan, an expert called the sage grouse “the northern spotted owl on steroids.”

The Wyoming case, Rob Roy Ramey says, illustrates the plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and environmental groups - one of whose leaders said, “[Why] sit in trees when there’s [the ESA to] make people do whatever we want” - to narrow infinitely the ESA’s focus and to widen exponentially its application. Mr. Ramey, the wildlife biologist who blew the whistle on the junk science used to list “the so-called Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse (PMJM),” says problems with the ESA go far beyond a lack of effective peer review.

The problems begin for the ESA when the wildlife service defines a “species,” “subspecies,” or “distinct population segment” because the service has no consistent thresholds and its listing decisions are highly subjective. For example, the “so-called … PMJM” did not qualify for listing, Mr. Ramey argues, because the degree of measured difference between it and other purported subspecies of meadow jumping mice is less than that among mouse populations of the same subspecies. Mr. Ramey argues, only half jokingly, that applying the wildlife service’s approach to Homo sapiens would yield numerous subspecies and distinct population segments of mankind.

Moreover, as the Sublette County lawsuit shows, the wildlife service and environmental groups label a species “imperiled” in one location despite its vitality elsewhere. The sage grouse, for example, is a game bird in Wyoming and Montana. The groups make the same argument for species “peripheral populations” that are naturally at risk because the species have colonized historically inhospitable areas, perhaps during unique climatic conditions. Finally, species advocates use national boundaries to create pockets of “imperiled” species that thrive across the border.

“Scientific findings” historically meant “reproducible” findings, but not for the wildlife service, which uses models to predict conditions 30 to 100 years hence. Furthermore, the agency increasingly relies on published studies that are incestuous or self-serving (e.g., posted online by environmental groups) and for which the underlying data are never made public. The service’s greatest deficiency, however, is conflict of interest: Its work is the product of “species cartels” afflicted with group think, confirmation bias and a common desire to preserve the prestige, power and appropriations of the agency that pays or employs them. For example, in a recent sage-grouse monograph, 41 percent of the authors were federal workers, and the editor, a federal bureaucrat, had authored one-third of the papers.

There is good news: Congress, at least one federal judge and conservation experts worldwide question the wildlife service’s approach and call for reforms. But meaningful change will not come in time for areas targeted by environmental groups and like-minded federal bureaucrats.

William Perry Pendley is president of Mountain States Legal Foundation.

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