DENVER (AP) — The nation needs to change the way it protects endangered species because the current practice is bogged down in lawsuits and weakened by mistrust, the head of the Western Governors Association said Wednesday.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said Wednesday the problem is nationwide and that he hopes to build bipartisan support for changes in the federal Endangered Species Act, the primary tool for protecting species on the brink of extinction.
He stopped short of suggesting specific changes but said yearslong legal battles frustrate landowners, local governments and industry and eat up resources that could be used to protect other other species.
Mead, a Republican serving a one-year term as chairman of the Western Governors Association, said the problem is partly in the law itself and partly in the way it's put into practice. Deciding whether to protect a species is nearly always a long, contentious struggle because federal intervention can result in rules that limit oil and gas drilling, mining, agriculture and other land uses.
"I don't think it's collapsing, but I do think there's definite chinks," Mead said after speaking to wildlife managers, conservationists and business interests meeting in Denver to review how well the Endangered Species Act works. Mead directed the Western Governors Association to conduct the review.
Mead's initiative comes as southwestern states are battling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over reintroducing endangered Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, and the federal government is attempting to lift protection from grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, agreed that decisions about protecting individual species drag on too long with no definitive conclusion. "There's got to be a point ... where we can declare victory," he said.
Hickenlooper, who also spoke at Wednesday's gathering, declined to say whether the law needs major or minor changes.
Mead and Hickenlooper cited a sweeping conservation effort just getting underway to save the greater sage grouse as a model for how endangered species can be protected with support and guidance from a wide range of interest groups.
The federal government decided in September not to list the ground-dwelling sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, instead opting for new rules and land use policies for federal lands.
The birds, known for their elaborate mating ritual, range across a 257,000-square-mile region spanning 11 states.
Environmental groups, mining companies, ranchers and some state governments have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the conservation plan, arguing it either goes too far or not far enough.
Mead said such protected legal battles threaten to leave residents and state and local officials disillusioned.
Mead also argued that court challenges make it too difficult to remove a species from protection, even if it has recovered. Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, only 1.4 percent of the 2,200 protected species have been removed from the list because they have recovered, he said.
He pointed to wolves, which were briefly removed from federal protection in Wyoming but then put then returned to protected status after environmental groups filed lawsuits challenging state management plans.
"You have to have a way to reach the goal line," Mead said.
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