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Delta Smelt Get Life From Supreme Court

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04 November 2011, 4:39 PM
Court refuses to denude smelt of ESA protections
The Delta

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court handed conservationists a victory and some good news for endangered wildlife. The court denied a request by an anti-wildlife right-wing group to strip federal Endangered Species Act protections from a rare species – a California fish called the delta smelt.

The right-wing Pacific Legal Foundation, has tried repeatedly to get any federal court to rule that the federal government has no power to extend ESA protection to species that exist only in a single state and have no current commercial value. The smelt just happens to be a species of convenience that fit those terms. PLF has been rebuffed by five different federal courts of appeals and now the Supreme Court.

Earthjustice attorney Trent Orr was involved in the big rebuff of PLF, pointing out to the courts that the anti-wildlife group simply didn’t understand established law. The Supreme Court hardly needed to hear it, having upheld the ESA by rejecting review of five earlier challenges from other corners of the nation.

What got PLF so bothered about the delta smelt is that the fish’s preservation requires state and federal water managers in California to leave a little water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in order to keep it from going extinct. PLF cast its lot with corporate agriculture operations south of the delta who seize much of the water needed by smelt and commercially valuable salmon and pump it to huge agricultural operations they’ve established in the desert.

PLF is a property rights groups, and property rights are as American as apple pie, I think we all agree. We disagree with PLF’s priorities – that property owners have a right to water that belongs to all citizens; and to rid their property of rare American wildlife at the expense of the rest of us. America’s wildlife is something we all share – especially when we’re talking about fish in public waterways.

If the railroad barons of the 19th century had bought up all of the west and decided to exterminate every last bison or grizzly bear or black-footed ferret or bald eagle, I think we’d all agree we were unfairly robbed of our unique natural heritage. But PLF argues that it’s entirely within the rights of property owners to do as they please even if that means killing off the last bald eagle or grizzly bear. It’s an extreme position.

The good news is that PLF has lost case after case attacking crucial protections for rare wildlife. The bad news is that they show no indication of stopping these aimless assaults.

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