Whether you like the federal Endangered Species Act depends on your perspective.
If you're an environmentalist, you love it. It offers many loopholes that allow your lawyers to stay busy. Some loopholes are deadlines so difficult to meet that suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over them is like shooting an endangered salmon in a barrel.
The ESA also provides environmental groups with a payday. Though they say getting their attorney fees doesn't amount to much, they do cash the checks. For example, the Center for Biological Diversity brought in nearly $6.2 million in "legal returns" from 2003 to 2010, according to the organization's annual reports.
If you're a farmer, rancher or landowner and want to do anything on your land beyond watching the sun set, you fear the ESA. If a threatened or endangered bird, animal or plant is found on your land, the odds are you're in for abuse courtesy of the ESA.
For example, ranchers in the Mountain Home, Idaho, area have been in court wrangling with the Western Watersheds Project over protecting slickspot peppergrass. Even after the ranchers and the state of Idaho put together a conservation agreement -- under which the peppergrass thrived -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was taken to court, according to Karen Budd-Falen, a lawyer who specializes in ESA-related cases.
So far, the federal government and the ranchers have spent $213,163 on attorney fees, she told a congressional committee recently.
"No one can show that this plant is any better protected by an ESA paper designation than it was by true on-the-ground management," she said. "Under this scenario, the ranchers have lost, the plant has lost and the public has lost."
If you're in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, you need more people, time and money to meet the ESA's many requirements. This year, the agency, which enforces the ESA, spent "at least $15.8 million taking substantive actions required by court orders or settlement agreements resulting from litigation," USFWS Director Dan Ashe told the committee. That's 75 percent of the agency's entire resource management allocation for listing and critical habitat.
If you're an endangered species, odds are the ESA won't help you.
"The purpose of the ESA is to recover endangered species -- yet this is where the current law is failing, and failing badly," U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings said during the ESA hearing. "Of the species listed under the ESA in the past 38 years, only 20 have been declared recovered. That's a 1 percent recovery rate. I firmly believe that we can do better."
That is what Hastings, R-Wash., wants to do. He looks at the facts -- there are currently 180 ESA-related lawsuits pending in courts across the country -- and he sees a problem.
He looks at July's settlement covering 779 species and 85 lawsuits and he sees another problem. Budd-Falen, in her testimony before Hastings' committee, estimated the cost of implementing the settlement at about $206 million -- plus attorney fees for the environmental groups that sued.
The Endangered Species Act doesn't do what it is supposed to, causes the federal government to spend most of its money doing court-ordered work instead of working to revive failing species and costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
Others in Congress have tried to improve the Endangered Species Act, the great white whale of ineffective and costly federal laws. They all have failed.
For the sake of the species that need protection, the landowners and agencies that struggle to make a broken law work and for the taxpayers who are forced to pay the bill, we hope Congress succeeds this time.