Why Salazar's Wolf Delisting Decision Is Good - Or At Least Not All Bad

A couple of weeks ago, Interior Secretary Ken "Cowboy Hat" Salazar went ahead with a decision to remove endangered species protections from grey wolves in several western states. The decision in question was first proposed by the Bush Administration, and was extremely controversial. Needless to say, there are quite a few people who are unhappy with Salazar's decision to approve the delisting.

To be honest, I'm not thrilled with it myself. I looked at the issue last year, and there certainly seemed to be some very good reasons to think that the delisting is not a good idea. Salazar's decision faces an almost certain court challenge, and it may well wind up being overturned. Speaking as someone who is concerned about the environment, and who thinks that it's critically important for us to preserve as much biodiversity as possible, I'm appalled by the delisting. I'm glad that we've got groups like Defenders of Wildlife acting as watchdogs, and I hope they succeed in getting the delisting overturned.

Speaking as someone who is concerned about the political use of scientific information, and who thinks that it's critically important to de-politicize scientific decisions as much as possible, I'm actually kind of happy about this one. I may not like or agree with the outcome, but the process shows some promise.

I say that because it looks like Salazar went ahead with the delisting without consulting with the White House or considering the effect that the decision might have on the morale of political allies of the administration. From a recent Washington Post article:

"Making the decision to adopt the Bush administration's flawed delisting proposal the same week that the president pledged his commitment to the Endangered Species Act certainly calls into question whether the Interior Department was coordinating as closely as one would expect to have done with the White House," said Bob Irvin, senior vice president for conservation programs at the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife. "This was a controversy that did not need to happen."

To put it bluntly, I'm not sure what Mr. Irvin is smoking. The authority to make Endangered Species Act decisions is vested in the Secretary of the Interior, because the agencies with the relevant expertise are part of Interior. The White House does not, to the best of my knowledge, have any of its own experts. There's no reason to think that the White House would have anything to add to an ESA decision but an analysis of the political impact, and political impact is exactly what ESA decisions should not be based on. Under the circumstances, I can't see any legitimate reason for Salazar to coordinate his decision with the White House. Defenders of Wildlife might have expected him to check with his boss, but I'm glad he didn't.

The WaPo article goes on to quote a Congresscritter:

One House Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, framed it in even more blunt political terms. "I just don't see what this does for us," the lawmaker said. "Here we are alienating people who did the most -- who did a lot to help us in the last election."

Yeah, the delisting is probably not going to make environmental groups happy, and environmental groups certainly did a hell of a lot to help Democrats in the 2008 elections. But positive decisions on Endangered Species designations should not be a reward for political activity.

Endangered Species Act designations are supposed to be based on one thing and one thing only: the science. The Interior Department claims that they did just that in this case. As I said, I'm skeptical, and I certainly hope that outside groups use whatever tools they have at their disposal to examine the process for themselves. If it turns out that the decision was not based on the best available science (and I'm not sure it was) I hope it's overturned promptly.

But, if nothing else, I'm glad that the White House wasn't involved in the process.


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"If it turns out that the decision was not based on the best available science (and I'm not sure it was) I hope it's overturned promptly."

The trouble is that science isn't black-and-white, and the law requires judges to defer to the government agency. If it's bad-but-not-completely-indefensible science in support of delisting, a lawsuit will fail.

At the same time, Salazar is sending a political message to Wyoming: you'll do better by compromising than you will by sticking to your guns (so to speak - no, wait, that should be taken literally). Bill Schneider at New West (http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/salazar_approves_wolf_delisting/C4…) quotes Salazar:

âIdaho and Montana have succeeded in getting us to a point where we can delist the wolf,â Salazar announced, âand this shows us the Endangered Species Act can work. With Wyoming, frankly, the scientists in the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) do not believe the recovery plan is adequate to protect the wolf in Wyoming.

This is an interesting decision which gives Idaho and Montana a chance to show that states can be responsible and cooperate with the ESA. Idaho's governor has already called dibs on the very first wolf-hunting tag, but we can hope that state wildlife-management agencies will behave better.

I could also wish that the conservation groups would refrain from suing long enough to see how the states conduct themselves and how the wolves fare; the wolves really aren't in danger of immediate extinction unless the Wyoming plan became universal. Unfortunately, I can't imagine that level of patience and the lawsuits are probably already being filed, and we may not get a chance to learn if cooperation will succeed.

The key issue is whether Idaho and Montana have adequate plans. If they aren't good enough to keep wolves from needing to be relisted (don't know enough myself to have an opinion), then the fact that Wyoming's is even worse doesn't make their plans any better.