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Pick Your Wildlife Poison

It's hard to know, sometimes, who to trust with America’s wildlife.

For the most part, wildlife is managed by individual states, which do some good science and issue tags for hunting licenses. They are also, theoretically, on the front lines of ensuring that wildlife species don’t get into such trouble that the federal government needs to step in under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act.

There is a constant tug-of-war between the locals and the feds, and it might be tempting to say those who love vibrant wildlife populations should favor one over the other.

But it’s not always easy to pick.

The feds have done plenty to kill off wildlife. In one of the more famous examples from the last quarter-century, Judge William Dwyer in 1991 found that it was "a remarkable series of violation of the environmental laws" by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in approving logging of ancient forest that had pushed the northern spotted owl to the brink of extinction.

The struggle for the spotted owl, which Earthjustice helped lead and which consumed many thousands of hours of Earthjustice attorney time (including a trip to the Supreme Court), would not have been necessary if the government had been doing its job for wildlife.

Earthjustice lawyers (and lots of others) routinely file—and win—cases against the Fish and Wildlife Service for missing deadlines, failing to list species that require urgent protections, and for cooking the science to avoid taking the measures necessary to recover vulnerable wildlife. Just this month, it took a lawsuit to force FWS to not capture endangered free-roaming wolves immigrating from Mexico.

But is local control a better choice? Don’t tell that to our Northern Rockies office, which last year challenged Wyoming’s kill-at-will plan for "managing" wolves in that state. This year, states in the northern Rockies which now manage the "fully-recovered" wolf population presided over the gunning down or trapping of 570 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming; about 1,700 wolves remain alive in the wild there, a population decline of 7 percent.

Local control has also come to the fore in Colorado as some county governments seek to stave off the potential Endangered Species Act listing of the Gunnison sage grouse, one of the most imperiled birds in the nation.

While the FWS has proposed protecting the sage grouse by listing it as endangered, some county governments are responding that such protection is unnecessary because of all the good work the locals are planning to do.

A dozen counties in Colorado and Utah recently adopted a "Memorandum of Understanding" to "ensure that reasonable and adequate work is being conducted, and shall continue to be conducted to reach the goal of increasing the current abundance, viability and vitality of Gunnison sage grouse and their habitat,"

But who’s in charge at the counties? People like Colorado's Montrose County Commissioner Ron Henderson, who according to a local press report suggested that the Gunnison sage grouse could be an "origin of a new flu?"

"Maybe we should get rid of them because of that," Henderson said, adding that there are other species of animals and plants that could be potentially listed and they too will devastate the economy of the region. "The greater sage grouse was also on the list. That could be very devastating, and it affects our friends in Garfield and Routt counties."

Translation: if we can just kill all the sage grouse we’re pretending to protect, maybe we can get on with mining, drilling, etc.

With friends like these at the local level, it's a good thing sage grouse and other wildlife have real friends (and lawyers) in the form of national and local conservation groups.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.