Newspaper column: Efforts to save endangered species can be counterproductive

Deseret tortoise (R-J file photo)

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), intending to protect the likes of eagles and grizzlies and bison. Instead it has been used by federal bureaucrats to label as endangered or threatened all manner of bugs, weeds, reptiles and minnows — jeopardizing economic activity from fishing to logging to mining to livestock grazing.

Since 1973, 2,000 species have been listed under the ESA as endangered or threatened. Of those, only 20 species — 1 percent — have sufficiently recovered to warrant delisting.

Meanwhile, federal and state government spending on protecting listed species has approached $2 billion a year in recent years.

The Interior Department continues to list species under the ESA and issue land use restrictions that it claims will prevent the need for future listings of such species as greater sage grouse and other species, despite the department’s spectacular and expensive failure to conserve species already on its extensive list.

Perhaps the most telling example of the department’s actions not only failing to accomplish its goals but likely to have harmed a species is the desert tortoise, listed as threatened in 1990.

Even though desert tortoises thrived in the new housing and business developments in Southern Nevada, where tender grasses and water were suddenly more abundant, developers were charged a mitigation fee of $550 per acre so a Desert Tortoise Conservation Center could be created. The center was closed in 2014 due to a budget shortfall.

According to a Clark County spokesman, that county alone has collected almost $43 million in tortoise mitigation fees since 2001. During that same timeframe almost $130 million has been spent on conserving the 78 species covered in the county’s Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

Ruby Valley rancher Cliff Gardner has been studying the way the federal land agencies have been handling the desert tortoise conservation effort and has found several flaws, including the presumption that human development is leading to a decline in the beasts’ habitat and therefore their total population.

Gardner notes that scholars who have pored over the diaries and letters of explorers of Nevada and the region — such as Francisco Garces, Jedadiah Smith, Kit Carson, Peter Skeen Ogden, Antonio Armijo and John C. Fremont — found almost no mention of edible game such as grouse or tortoises. It was not until the settlers started grazing livestock and improving water sources and shooting predators that these began to flourish.

Cattle graze in the Gold Butte area (R-J photo)

Range ecologist and former Forest Service employee Vernon Bostick, one of the experts cited by Gardner, has been quoted for decades in newspapers and magazines as arguing that the very practices advocated by the federal land bureaucracy is actually causing any perceived decline in tortoise population.

Writing in Rangelands magazine in 1990, Bostick noted, “The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 ended the free-for-all, get-all-you-can-while-you-can, uncontrolled grazing which had destroyed the range resource on the public domain. Every decade since the original reduction of roughly 50 percent in grazing use, the Bureau of Land Management has made reductions in the amount of livestock use permitted.

Permitted use today is only about ten percent of the livestock use that occurred during the free range days. If the conservative grazing management that is being practiced today has such a detrimental impact on desert tortoise populations, how could the species have survived through all those years of uncontrolled livestock grazing?”

But BLM managers argue cattle are a danger to tortoises, especially in the spring when hatchlings emerge, and have denied grazing permits during that time when cattle can gain the most weight.

In another essay, Bostick observed that cattle grazing crops foliage closer to the ground and causes new shoots to appear for the low-to-the-ground toothless, gizzardless tortoise to eat.

“A favorite food of desert tortoises is fresh cow dung …” Bostick adds. “The more cows on the range, the more watering places there will be for tortoises, and the more likely it will be that a tortoise will find a life sustaining cow-pie …” Dung also contains nutrients. Fewer tortoises are found where grazing has been prohibited, such as the Nevada Test Site.

Gardner also notes that in the 1950s predator control bounties were ended and the use of poisons prohibited. This led to a boom in the population of ravens, fox, skunks, badgers and coyotes — all of which feed on tortoises. Dozens of hollow tortoise shells are often found beneath perches of ravens.

The feds never seem to learn from their failures.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

8 comments on “Newspaper column: Efforts to save endangered species can be counterproductive

  1. Patrick says:

    Mr. Bostick knows him some cattle dung boy.

    Wonder how many tortoises he interviewed to come up with the dietary critique?

  2. Bill says:

    Like so many other laws enacted in the name of “doing good” the result is to often a bad result doing nothing more than adding additional costs for the taxpaying public to pay and adding onerous and costly regulations and procedures that cost millions of dollars. Those dollars would be better spent on more pressing matters or left with he taxpayers from whom (under the threat of force) they are taken. Just like the Wild Hose and Burro Act of 1971, the Endangered Species Act seemingly results in more harm than good. I wonder, are wild horses and burros as much a threat to the desert tortoise as cows? Seems they would be. If the horses are a threat to the tortoises shouldn’t they be removed. When the BLM seeks to remove some of the thousands of horses and burros from areas that cannot sustain them, lawsuits are filed, And if the BLM is successful in removing some of he thousands and placing them with the other thousands the government has penned around the West, those captured “wild” horses and burros, along with myriad thousands already there are given a government pension costing the taxpayers millions of dollars. I realize that the use of “pension” is a bit ironical but in fact the captured “wild” horses and burros are provided free room and board in a government owned facility and protected from predators and provided medical care. About the only policy that the federal government has come up with that I agree with is their prohibition about feeding bears. Seems like even the government figured that one out.

  3. Rincon says:

    Your point is well taken. Unfortunately, people react emotionally when appealing animals are involved. Somehow, it’s OK to slaughter a pig, a very intelligent animal, but we make it against the law to slaughter horses. Congress won’t even allow them to be euthanized. Apparently, pigs just aren’t pretty enough.

  4. Patrick says:

    See, the thing is when it comes to those wild horses and wild burros and heck even the tortoises, they are living on public land. The only reason any fuss is being made about the cow chips their eating, or the shells piling up is because a few welfare ranchers are upset that their existence as welfare ranchers is being threatened.

    There wouldn’t be any need for rounding up and penning those animals (and those oh so outrageous costs at the barrel of a gun, to them “poor” oppressed taxpayers) if it weren’t because the ranchers want their gravy train to keep flowing at the expense of the tax paying public. Strange you don’t hear any yelping or whining about the fact that a relatively few elite ranchers, most of the multi millionaires with planes, helicopters, and loads of expensive guns at the ready to take what isn’t even theirs, are feeding at the public trough to the tune of millions of dollars every year. Instead, it’s those damn wild horses and burros that are eating “their” public range that are the problem.

    I wish just once, someone would explain to me how, if government ought to be run like a business, the government leases out rangeland to these millionaires at less than one tenth the cost these fine Americans would be paying for the identical land if it were private?

    But yeah, it’s the costs “we the people” much continue to swallow because otherwise some of them fine folks might just take up arms to protect what isn’t even theirs.

  5. If it were private, it wouldn’t be identical.

  6. Bill says:

    I have known many ranchers over the years and few could be called millionaires much less multi-millionaires. Many of the ranches in Nevada are family owned and passed down from one generation of hard working and dedicated people to their children. What exactly is the fair market value for grazing a cow on cheat grass and sagebrush for a fraction of a year on land controlled by the Federal Government? Of all the wars that are fought in this world, in some respects the most dishonest is class warfare.

  7. Rincon says:

    Yes, it’s dishonest. And we know which class is winning – the most dishonest one.

  8. Steve says:

    “And we know which class is winning – the most dishonest one.”

    The Clinton class!

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