Endangered Species: The Environmental Issue for 2012

Climate change has long dominated environmental politics, but after Congress delisted wolves this year, endangered species protections are stoking controversy

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In the midst of panic over an impending government shutdown in April, a budget rider stripping Western wolves of their status as an endangered species got more attention for its evocative name -- the "wolf rider" -- than for its contents. But that measure sent ripples through the environmentalist community, giving rise to new initiatives and highlighting political divides in the West that suggest endangered species may pose a major challenge for Democrats in 2012.

The urgency of climate change -- and Congress's failure to mobilize against it -- has a tendency to overshadow ongoing environmental causes that have seen more success. For the past 40 years, the Endangered Species Act has done an incredibly effective job of preserving ecosystems. Though it's seen plenty of time in court, it has mostly remained a niche issue, obsessed over by real estate developers and Western landowners but flying under the radar of most casual observers -- and legislators. The wolf rider, however, has not only poked a significant hole in the environmental movement's most reliable tool, it has drawn attention to the complicated politics of protecting species.

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For years, wolves have been one of the most polarizing issues in the American West. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, gray wolves were virtually extinct in the lower 48 states. After 37 years of protection under the law, however, about 1,650 wolves now roam the Northern Rockies -- more than five times the initial recovery goal of 300. Ranchers and hunters, whose livestock and big-game prey wolves are prone to devouring, have long called for an end to the animals' protected status. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to lessen protections and shift wolf policy to the states, however, conservation groups filed suit.

In April, Congress skirted the courts and granted ranchers and hunters their wish. By delisting the species in the Northern Rockies, the wolf rider allowed Montana and Idaho -- Wyoming was not included in the rider -- to pursue their own policies. The legislation, championed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), marked the first time Congress has removed protections for an endangered species.

"To me it just set an absolutely horrendous precedent," said Eric Glitzenstein, founding partner of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, which often represents conservation groups.

This new precedent may inspire legislators to attempt to circumvent protections for species holding up development in their districts. Several measures already have environmentalists alarmed.

Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and James Inhofe (Okla.) have proposed amendments to an economic-development reauthorization bill that would prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from extending ESA protections to two species prevalent in oil and gas country.

Now that Congress has gone ahead and taken a species off the list, said Patrick Parenteau, an ESA expert at Vermont Law School, savvy legislators are saying, "'Well heck, let's cut to the quick and prevent the species from being listed at all.'"

In the House, California Republicans are pushing a bill that would unravel protections for the Delta smelt, an endangered fish at the heart of California's bitter water politics, in order to funnel more water to farmers in the state's San Joaquin Valley. The bill would override a bipartisan agreement passed by state legislators in 2009 that balanced environmental and agricultural interests. Merely the latest GOP effort to supersede protections for the smelt and other fish species, this bill will likely pass the House but may well falter once it hits the Senate, opposed as it is by California's Democratic senators and by the White House.

In much of the West, political lines on conservation are not so black-and-white. Strong traditions of wilderness conservation run through both parties, ranching and hunting interests are all-powerful, and states' rights are a religion.

Looking forward to next year's elections, species conservation is likely to play a larger role. Tester will face off against a staunchly anti-wolf Republican opponent. In order to make headway with ranchers, Tester needed his own wolf measure to trumpet, and with April's rider, the Democratic caucus and the White House were eager to give it to him. The 2010 midterm elections underscored the precarious position of Western Democrats, with Sens. Harry Reid (Nev.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), and Patty Murray (Wash.) all barely holding onto their Senate seats.

By courting Western voters, however, the Democratic Party runs the risk of alienating its environmentalist base of donors and activists. Obama has already pushed environmentalists to the brink on climate, with Al Gore providing the most recent excoriation of the president's climate backtracking in Rolling Stone. In June, Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat who served as Secretary of the Interior under Clinton, condemned Obama's conservation policies, singling out the wolf rider and congressional attacks on wilderness. "It is imperative that President Obama take up the mantle of land and water conservation," Babbitt said in a speech, "something that he has not yet done in a significant way."

Betrayed as they may feel by the Democrats, however, conservationists should be more worried about Republicans realizing the political potential in lambasting the Endangered Species Act. With conservative voters more scornful than ever of big government intrusion, a law that empowers the feds to force states to prioritize plants and animals over much-needed development seems ripe for outrage.

Image credit: fllickr/USFWS Pacific