by Shiloh Perry

During the final weeks of the Obama administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. While the FWS claims the listing will help protect the bee species, what does the first-ever addition of a bee species in the continental U.S. to the endangered species list mean?

It means that the rusty patched bumblebee, an important pollinator for American agriculture, has been added to a list of 1,652 domestic species which are protected under the ESA. This list has been added to since the ESA was enacted in 1973. However, fewer than 2 percent of species have been removed from the list during the 44-year life of the law.

Now more than ever, it is time to reform the ESA to protect and ultimately recover threatened and endangered species. Reform is necessary because there are clear shortcomings associated with the upkeep and recovery rate of listed species.

Congress intended for the ESA to protect species from extinction. However, the law fails to accomplish this; instead it prioritizes species listings over actual recovery and habitat conservation. It fails to provide adequate incentives for working lands species conservation. Further, the law imposes far-reaching regulatory burdens which greatly restrict agriculture’s ability to produce food, fuel and fiber for consumers here at home and around the world.

Conservation is extremely important to America’s farmers and ranchers. Modern farming technologies reflect this, as does agriculture’s involvement in volunteer conservation efforts at the state and local levels. Farmers and ranchers consider it their personal responsibility to be stewards of the land.

While agriculture greatly values conservation, the ESA creates many challenges for farmers and ranchers and often limits agriculture production. Many farms and ranches used for crop production and raising livestock contain habitat which sustains wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Land is typically a farmer’s largest business asset; most do everything possible to sustain its longevity. However, farmers are often restricted from fully utilizing their land due to the ESA’s strict regulations when endangered species or critical habitat are present. These regulations affect not only farmers’ occupations and ability to stay profitable, but families and homesteads as well. Working in agriculture is often more than an occupation; it is a lifestyle and frequently a family endeavor. The increased regulatory burden of the ESA negatively affects rural quality of life and jeopardizes the overall agriculture economy.

Another primary cause of ESA-related conflicts is the law’s litigation-driven model. The statute allows special interest groups to sue anyone believed to be in violation of the act. Too often radical environmental activists target citizens, frequently farmers and ranchers, who practice positive conservation efforts. Resulting legal costs disrupt the rural economy, are burdensome to taxpayers and provide no resources for active species conservation and recovery efforts.

Challenges associated with the ESA need to be fixed in order to truly protect species threatened by extinction. Reform should include a focus on species recovery and habitat conservation that respects landowners and prioritizes basic human needs over those of endangered species. Coordination with state wildlife agencies to leverage private, incentive-based conservation efforts can better achieve long-term conservation goals. The protection of private property rights, the economic impact of recovering endangered species and the costs of designating critical habitat must be considered.

ESA reform is paramount not only for the true preservation of threatened and endangered species, but for the continued ability of American agriculture to provide basic human needs for all people. It is time for federal lawmakers and regulators to come together with states, local governments, landowners and the regulated community to find common sense solutions to improve the Endangered Species Act.

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