“Overreach” is oft used to describe the administrative state in Washington, D.C., and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one such example of our government’s regulatory tentacles. Missourians know this all too well based on past experiences with management of the Missouri River to heighten the libido of the endangered pallid sturgeon.
Signed into law in 1973, the ESA was landmark legislation—and still is—depending on one’s experience with it. Environmental activists tout 99% of species protected under the Act have been saved from extinction. The flip side is less than 4% of listed species have actually been recovered and delisted. With each passing year, more species are added to the list, entangling more farmers, landowners, small business owners, and county governments in bureaucratic red tape. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed whole-county restrictions on the use of Enlist herbicides due to the presence of the threatened American Burying Beetle. This affected Barton, Bates, Cedar, St. Clair and Vernon counties in west central Missouri, as well as a wide swath of counties from Nebraska to Texas. Missouri Farm Bureau was persistent in working with our congressional delegation and others to get the restrictions lifted after it came to light that the beetle was not even a native species to this region of Missouri.
The outlook isn’t as bright in other cases. In response to litigation and a recent court settlement, EPA is developing a draft herbicide strategy detailing how it intends to provide early mitigation for more than 900 listed species and habitats covered under the ESA. This complex proposal will result in costly regulatory burdens for millions of agricultural producers. Many will be forced to reduce the use of herbicides or prevented from using them altogether. Others will undertake costly counterproductive mitigation measures that will affect the sustainability of their operations.
EPA has issued an equally onerous proposal called the Vulnerable Species Pilot Project (VSPP). The draft identifies mitigation measures for 27 federally threatened and endangered pilot species, including Mead’s Milkweed, Ozark cavefish and the Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew in Missouri. Similar to the draft herbicide strategy, the VSPP proposal has an interesting twist with the EPA proposing a requirement that farmers and ranchers coordinate with their local U.S. Fish & Wildlife (USFWS) office three months ahead of an application. It is unrealistic to think that farmers can predict their pest management needs three months into the future. The proposal is completely detached from the workings of an actual farm or ranch.
MOFB is concerned with recent proposals to list the western fanshell and salamander mussel as threatened and endangered. The USFWS proposal halted any federal conservation cost-share practices such as streambank restoration. The proposal for the salamander mussel in east-central Missouri was not even peer-reviewed.
When discussing habitat for these mussel species, USFWS and other federal agencies fail to recognize that their severe restrictions on landowners disallow, or heavily discourage, stream channel maintenance. As a result, stream flows, especially during the summer months, are severely restricted by the buildup of sand and gravel, which limits the range of fish hosts required for mussel propagation. This reduces the very aquatic habitat they are attempting to regulate into existence.
Missouri landowners are also being impacted by the endangered listing of the northern long-eared bat. Farmers and ranchers received letters from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, notifying them that in order to avoid potential impacts to roosting bats and to remain compliant with federal cost-share programs, tree-clearing work can only be conducted between November and the end of March.
Fifty years after the passage of the ESA, it is clear changes are needed. MOFB’s members believe endangered species protection can be more effectively achieved by providing voluntary incentives to private landowners, who hold the vast majority of land in this country, rather than imposing top-down land use restrictions.
We all have a shared interest in protecting wildlife, but the use (and abuse) of the ESA to dictate how we farm or build critical infrastructure goes too far. Curbing this government overreach is overdue.