Critical habitat reaching critical mass
Consider for a moment the bull trout. Once called the Dolly Varden, the fish is closely related to the char that proliferates in Alaska and Canada.
Like the gray wolf, the bull trout is a close relative of a species that is plentiful to the point of brimming in one part of the continent yet considered to be endangered or threatened in another.
That's how the federal Endangered Species Act works.
Thousands of gray wolves live in Canada and Alaska, yet they are protected in the Lower 48, even as they spread across the U.S.'s northern tier.
As a part of the process of protecting animals that may or may not need it, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designates "critical habitat" areas. Critical habitat means some activities that might in some way affect that species are banned or curbed.
Especially on federally owned land, the impact can be huge. Consider the fact that the federal government owns most of the West. For example, it owns 84.5 percent of Nevada, 53.1 percent of Oregon, 50.2 percent of Idaho, 45.3 percent of California and 30.3 percent of Washington state.
Many ranchers who graze cattle on federal allotments feel the crush of critical habitat designations, as do logging companies that bid on timber sales in national forests.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, critical habitats have been designated for 220 endangered or threatened animal species, many in the West. Though such a designation does not automatically stop all human activity, it does affect any that require a federal permit. That includes ranching and logging, among others.
What you ultimately have is layer after layer of "critical habitats" superimposed on one another, each with a set of restrictions.
This fact came up recently when the critical habitat area for the bull trout was quadrupled. Instead of a critical habitat of 4,800 miles of river and lake shorelines, now about 19,700 miles of shorelines are included. Bull trout don't even exist in some of those areas, yet they are protected. About 800 miles of those rivers and 16,700 acres of lakes haven't seen a bull trout in who-knows-how-long.
But here's the kicker -- 97 percent of that critical habitat for the bull trout is also critical habitat for one or several other species, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman.
Which brings up this question: How many layers of protection are required in those areas? One? Three? A dozen?
This is a case of Uncle Sam wearing a belt and suspenders at the same time to protect the species.
The Pacific Legal Foundation works to protect another endangered "species" -- resource industries in the West. Over regulation by the federal government and harassment from environmental groups have decimated the ranks of companies that rely on natural resources.
"At some point you're going to reach a tipping point," said Damien Schiff, a PLF lawyer. "You're going to cause economic harm as a result of excessive regulation."
For example, he said, one critical habitat designation might restrict one activity; another might restrict another. Still another might restrict a third. Pretty soon, no one can do anything.
If you were to compile a map showing the critical habitat of all of the endangered, threatened and otherwise noteworthy animal species currently under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act, what would it look like?
Nearly every river, lake and stream has some sort of sucker fish, bull trout, steelhead, salmon, smelt or other fish. Nearly every old-growth forest in the Northwest is home to the northern spotted owl, which is deemed threatened. Throw in much of the West, where the sage grouse is being studied for protection, and the Palouse, where the wily giant Palouse earthworm roams and that environmentalists want to protect.
And don't forget about the gray wolf. Some environmentalists want it returned to its historical range -- most of the continental U.S.
For good measure, there are endangered shrews and kangaroo rats to add to the mix.
Combined, all of the species being considered for protection and the critical habitat they would add cover a lot of territory.
We suspect that, eventually, it would include nearly all of the continental U.S.