Federal endangered species law creates unnecessary costs

THE Endangered Species Act is often derided as a well-intentioned law that has devolved into self-parody at high cost to citizens. A lawsuit by three oil and natural gas-associated groups regarding the classification of the American burying beetle shows this stereotype has foundation in reality.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America, American Stewards of Liberty and Osage Producers Association want the American burying beetle removed from the endangered species list. They allege the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to issue a required finding within a legally required one-year period.

Under the Endangered Species Act, species can be declared endangered based “solely” on the “best scientific and commercial data available” and federal officials must also take into account state efforts to protect species. A species can be removed from the list if it is found the information used to place it there was flawed. Critics argue this is the case for the beetle.

The burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) was declared endangered in 1989 based on claims of a 90 percent reduction in its historical range. Yet the producers’ lawsuit notes “scientifically defensible range-wide studies of presence/absence or abundance have never been completed for this highly variable and eclectically distributed species.” Claims of a historical decline are based on anecdotal evidence and, the lawsuit notes, “there exists no evidence that Nicrophorus americanus is currently in danger of extinction across all or a significant portion of its contemporary range.”

Instead, the lawsuit argues the beetle’s known contemporary range “has been expanding in recent decades” due to better surveying efforts and captive breeding and reintroduction programs.

“There is now a 100-fold expansion of the known range since the species’ listing,” the lawsuit states. “Further, there was a three percent range expansion in 2015 alone.”

The producers argue the wildlife agency’s analyses of threats to the beetle “are based largely on speculation and assumption rather than actual evidence of downward pressure on the current abundance or distribution of the species.”

And, the lawsuit notes, the beetle is “easily raised in captivity,” which further reduces the likelihood of its extinction under any circumstances.

“There exists no information to suggest that the status of the species is currently in decline or will become so in the foreseeable future,” the lawsuit argues.

Regulatory restrictions imposed wherever the beetle is found not only affect private-sector activity, such as drilling, but also taxpayers in general. The lawsuit notes the Oklahoma Department of Transportation was forced to spend $1.3 million on conservation actions within a six-year period, delaying road and bridge projects.

So at a time when the state faces budget challenges, officials are required to divert substantial sums to save a beetle that isn’t even endangered and whose population is increasing, one that faces no real threat of elimination.

There’s a phrase describing such bureaucratic inefficiency, taxpayer waste and misguided priorities: your government at work.


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