The Extinction Enablers

Photo source Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington | CC BY 2.0

It came as no surprise late last week when the Republican-dominated Congress and the Trump administration announced their intention to gut the Endangered Species Act despite the fact that it enjoys a stunning 80 percent support among Americans.

It is nothing short of embarrassing for Montanans that the administration’s deregulatory efforts are being led by none other than Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke — a guy who still claims to be a Montanan. Zinke is aided and abetted by Montana’s lone congressman, Greg Gianforte, who is backing a package of House bills from Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who has said he “would love to invalidate” the Endangered Species Act.

There’s no doubt that the industrialization of America has had devastating impacts on a host of native plant and animal species across the continent. From tiny snail darters in the Appalachians to the once-abundant runs of salmon up the mighty rivers of the West, logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, road-building, dams and rampant industrial development have fragmented and destroyed the habitat essential to the very existence of thousands of species. Humans are now held responsible for what is being called “the sixth great extinction event” on the planet. In simple terms, it’s estimated that species are now going extinct at a rate 100 to 1,000 times faster than natural background rates.

What makes Zinke’s and Gianforte’s efforts to gut the Endangered Species Act even more egregious is that Montana and the Northern Rockies still have almost all the native species that were here when Lewis and Clark’s expedition rolled through more than two centuries ago — even if some of them, like lynx, bull trout, sage grouse, white sturgeon and wolverines, are struggling to survive.

One might think Zinke and Gianforte would take pride in Montana’s unique status and work to preserve and restore our native species. But instead, Gianforte facetiously claims the House bills are an “opportunity to modernize the ESA with targeted reforms… and bring some common sense back to protecting endangered species” — the exact opposite of what will actually happen.

Among many other things, the moves will let Zinke block petitions for listing or agency actions protecting species; block critical habitat designations on water bodies already considered disturbed; defer agency scientific findings to state data; force the federal government to consider the economic impact of saving a species rather than making a decision based solely on science; and concentrate efforts on places where species currently reside rather than designating the critical habitat necessary for their survival.

Given that many of the threatened and endangered species are victims of habitat fragmentation, destruction and/or interference with traditional migratory or spawning routes, it’s easy to see that concentrating recovery efforts on smaller landscapes will be futile for the species that require large, intact and connected habitats — be they forests, rivers or plains. Likewise, if you put the continued existence of endangered species up against the economic potential of extractive industries such as logging, drilling and mining, the heavy thumb of corporate interests is sure to tip the scale.

It’s ironic that Republicans claim to be “pro-life” —  but apparently reserve that stance to telling women what they can do with their bodies rather than preserving the life of threatened and endangered species. Being in thrall to extractive industries, it’s not surprising that profits take precedence for Zinke and Gianforte. But if we want to keep our precious and unique native species around for our kids and grandkids, it’s time to tell Montana’s extinction enablers in no uncertain terms “hands off the Endangered Species Act.”

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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