August 04, 2013 Print

Shooting owls, counting slugs, and fighting evolution - US Fish & Wildlife Service at work

The recent announcement by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) about its plan to shoot 3,603 Barred Owls in Washington and Oregon over the next few years is a great way to start a conversation about this agency. Why does it exist and exactly what does it do? Is this a necessary federal agency?

Quite the contrary. In fact, the activities of the USFWS carelessly harm citizens and communities not just in Washington State but everywhere they operate.

What is U.S. Fish and Wildlife?

While the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service traces its existence back to 1871, controversy over its activities really began after the Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed in 1972.

Originally intended to protect animals like the Grizzly Bear, the Bald Eagle, and whales, the Act, like many federal laws, has evolved. The ESA has become leverage for a circus of special interests like the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which manipulate the ESA as a fundraising tool. These groups sue USFWS, forcing it to list a blizzard of new “species” as endangered (see this list for Eastern Washington alone). These efforts are often backed by shoddy science and focused on out-of-court settlements that enrich organizations like the CBD. They do nothing to help the listed species and cause great harm to local communities. CBD gets paid regardless of the merits of its claims; the taxpayer is forced to subsidize CBD’s existence and its litigation.

In some cases, USFWS pushes back, but the trend has been toward out-of-court settlements to placate the fringe views of radical organizations like the CBD. Some recent, unsuccessful efforts have been made at the Federal level to curb these abuses, but they remain business as usual.

Four dead Barred Owls - killed by USFWS

The USFWS budget totaled $3.1 billion as of 2011. Of these funds, $1.2 billion were grants to local governments or other groups for habitat improvement programs. Basically, USFWS is a financial middleman for over one-third of its budget. Much of its remaining budget funds ESA-related issues, paying rewards to groups like the Center for Biological Diversity to sue the government. Other budget items include “plans” to recover species (but not the “action” to save them) and about $100 million per year for land acquisition.

The Barred Owl is just one local example of these corrupt, inefficient operations at work. The USFWS listed the Northern Spotted Owl in 1990, causing financial ruin for many Pacific Northwest communities. Now, after more than 20 years of massive restrictions on human activity, the USFWS has been forced to admit that the process of natural selection has more to do with the dwindling Spotted Owl population as it loses out to its bigger and more adaptable cousin, the Barred Owl.

Human activity didn’t matter to this inevitable outcome. The Barred Owl may eventually exterminate the Spotted Owl. I wrote about this story here. However, now that USFWS intends to reverse the force of nature and deny natural selection, it is worth looking at this agency and what their continued existence means.

Counting slugs in Washington - USFWS at work

USFWS to Slug Washington Property Owners

In an effort to placate the extremists who benefit financially from the ESA, the USFWS is counting slugs in Washington State to see if there are enough limited “special” slug populations to justify listing them. After experiencing the Spotted Owl fiasco, many people are concerned that this process will result in additional layers of property restrictions. The supporters of slug protection claim this will not happen:

“On federal forests, officials already survey timber sales for slugs and snails and manage the sale accordingly, said [Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity]. ‘If they do get listed, it won’t keep projects from going forward.’”

It isn’t clear why anyone would believe this, and local citizens are increasingly skeptical of these claims with each new attempt to invent a possible minor problem and then recommend massive, breathtaking, and harmful “solutions.

Déjà vu?

The ongoing Mazama Pocket Gopher controversy in Thurston County is another example. USFWS attempted to convince local citizens that this critter, which infests the Artillery Impact Zone range at Ft. Lewis, as well as the Olympia Airport and most surrounding agricultural lands, must be “protected.”

While USFWS claims it does not want to restrict agriculture, it also does not want farmers harvesting crops except from November to February. That might work in the Southern Hemisphere, but in North America, farm crops are usually harvested when the plants are growing (hint: not in the dead of winter).

Content Image of Pocket gopher wins

It was shocking to local Thurston County farmers that nobody at USFWS had even elementary knowledge of basic farming. Despite this breathtaking display of ignorance, USFWS attempted to assure farmers that this proposed listing of the Mazama Pocket Gopher would not harm local farms. It even provided nice, colorful signs at the public hearing making this claim.

The USFWS claims seem even sillier in light of the fact that this rodent has thrived on ground where artillery has been continuously tested for almost a century. Even then, the USFWS maintains that the gopher will be irrevocably harmed by a farm tractor driving in a field. Funded by our tax dollars and squandering them in every way possible, this is the modern USFWS.

The ongoing effort to list the White Bluffs Bladderpod near the Tri-Cities is another example of the agency out of control. It turns out that this “endangered” Bladderpod is actually the same species – according to DNA tests – as a very common plant found in many other places. Why did USFWS not order a simple DNA test before they threatened the local community with this listing? Are there no real scientists or biologists at USFWS?

Recent effort to restrict human access to land because of toads and frogs in California – even though it appears to be established that they are dying because of a natural fungus – is yet another example. In this case, rather than attempt to come up with a plan to fight the fungus (sort of like shooting Barred Owls) and deny the evolutionary process, the knee jerk reaction of USFWS is always to harm the local community. Any excuse to restrict land use appears to be the USFWS actual agenda.

USFWS Armed and Agressive

The recent high-publicity SWAT team raid on Gibson Guitar shows how far USFWS will go. It targeted one business for dubious violations of the Lacey Act, a law that criminalizes violations of other countries’ laws related to wildlife. The Lacey Act was intended to prevent poaching and smuggling of things like elephant tusks and rhino horns. In this case, it was obvious that Gibson Guitar was not engaging in illegal activity. However, USFWS claimed the paperwork for some of the exotic wood they import from overseas wasn’t perfect. At the same time, USFWS leaves identical businesses alone who have the same “violations.” The only difference? The political party to which the business owners had donated money.

Mark Steyn summed up the concerns we all have about this type of bureaucratic directed SWAT raid very well: “A bureaucracy is bad. A politicized bureaucracy is worse. A paramilitary politicized bureaucracy is nuts.”

The USFWS doesn’t restrict its aggressive enforcement tactics to politically incorrect guitar companies. It apparently sees no problem in attempting to fine an 11-year old girl for daring to save an endangered woodpecker from her pet cat (and threatening the girl’s parents with jail). After publicity of these actions the agency reversed course and blamed a “clerical error,” but USFWS agents appear to treat these actions as common practice and appropriate.

USFWS, the Landlord

The USFWS has also become a rapacious landlord, acquiring vast swaths of land all around the United States and in Washington State. On its website, the USFWS says it manages 150 million acres of refuges in the United States and that “world-class recreation” is allowed. In reality, the agency hasrestricted the most benign recreation, even outlawing jogging on the Dungeness Spit.

While many people value wildlife refuges, the accelerating growth of land purchases by USFWS has made them a larger landholder than the U.S. Parks Department. As they increasingly restrict human access to and activities on these lands, claims of “world-class recreation” appear less than honest.

What to do?

It’s easy to understand something is wrong when the USFWS effectively funds radical interests that then sue for more taxpayer money. And the harm to local communities becomes more obvious with every USFWS effort to restrict access to land. Restrictions appear to be the USFWS reaction to every perceived problem. With countless examples of incompetence, mission creep, wasting resources, or general ignorance at USFWS, the question is what should we do about it?

The best solution would be to dissolve the USFWS transferring their legitimate duties and their lands to the states. Most states have fish & wildlife departments that are fully capable of doing the job that USFWS does in their jurisdictions, and these state agencies would be less likely to casually and needlessly inflict harm on local communities. While there are clearly problems with the upper management of the USFWS, there are good, experienced employees in the agency who respective state agencies could hire.

Here in Washington, I’m a critic of our Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) as much as anyone. YetI trust them much more than the bureaucrats who direct USFWS from Washington D.C. At least we can drive to Olympia and attempt to work out our problems with WDFW unlike the black hole of USFWS 3000 miles away. It is possible to arrange a real meeting here with someone who might actually care about our community, or at least fear local backlash. And Washington’s open government laws offer better (and much faster) tools for oversight by individual citizens than the federal FOIA law..

Most states would do a better job than USFWS at managing their resources and making rational decisions that protect the environment, endangered species, and local communities. The USFWS has become politicized, aggressive, and remote. Moreover, the USFWS has become a funding source for extremist litigation organizations and a tool to manipulate government policy. Ultimately, USFWS has lost track of real science and forgotten its responsibility to citizens.

As long as the USFWS continues to count slugs, shoot owls, and oppose natural adaptations, we will all pay dearly to witness the spectacle.


Glen Morgan

Property Rights Director

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