Ranchers are rightfully concerned over the Obama administration's reinterpretation of language in the Endangered Species Act.
If the policy proposals are approved, federal agencies will employ a more expansive understanding of the ESA's scope, subjecting more land -- both public and private, to restrictions. That could have a big impact on ranchers who depend on public grazing allotments, or own property that is potential habitat for an endangered species.
The rules at question are complex.
The law requires that protections be extended to a species that is endangered or threatened "throughout all or a significant portion of its range." The Bush administration had interpreted that to mean that protections were to be extended where the species was most threatened, not in areas where it thrived or did not exist.
That interpretation was challenged in two court rulings that failed to provide a definitive standard. The Obama administration came up with a new policy it says will lend clarity. Its proposal would hold that if a species were found to be threatened in a significant portion of its range, the protections would be applied to the full extent of its range.
Karen Budd-Falen, an attorney who represents cattle and natural resource interests, says that policy change will lead to more and larger areas being designated as critical habitat, and more restrictions being placed on human activity.
And the administration's proposed policy change would all but gut provisions of the law that could blunt the impacts of those designations.
The act allows the government to exclude areas from being designated as critical habitat if that designation would create economic harm. Under previous administrations, an analysis of areas not inhabited by the species took into consideration the economic impact of designating the species as endangered.
An analysis under the Obama policy would first assume that all protections accorded to endangered species are already in place. In that case, the only economic harm would be the incremental impact of the greater restrictions imposed upon critical habitat.
With the economic impact minimized, on paper at least, there's little chance that the land in question would be excluded from the critical habitat designation.
We agree with critics of the proposal who say that clarity on the mechanics of the Endangered Species Act is best left to Congress, not the administration's rulemakers or federal appeals courts.
Human endeavors and the survival of threatened or endangered species are not mutually exclusive propositions. What's really needed is a complete overhaul of the act that recognizes that human interests can be at least as important as protecting endangered species.
Congress must provide that balance.