The Endangered Habitat Act?

Jun 4, 2012

You don't have to dig very deep into the ESA's 47 pages before you stumble upon this somewhat surprising passage.  You might think that the first state purpose of the Endangered Species Act would be to preserve species.  Lo and behold, it's the ecoystem that gets top billing:

(b) PURPOSES.—The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species, and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve the purposes of the treaties and conventions set forth in subsection (a) of this section.


But is this the right tool for that job?

In the audio clip posted here, biologist Bruce Christman echoes a sentiment you'll find in another blog post about politics and science: the idea that the ESA is too often used as a blunt instrument for conserving ecosystems, regardless of whether there are species there that warrant protection.  His suggestion is not that these habitats don't deserve protection, but that they deserve their own law. It's an idea that we've heard more than once in the last month. And in thirsty New Mexico, the focus, not surprisingly, is on water.  Some call for an Endangered Habitat Act.  Others just cut to the chase and and propose an Endangered Rivers Act. 

While instream flow (basically, water in a stream) is considered a "beneficial use" and therefore a legitimate expenditure of a river's native water, there is nothing in New Mexico law (as far as I've been able to discern) that specifically guarantees a river the right to any of its own water. In other words, unless someone with water rights wants to sell or donate them to the cause of keeping the river wet, then the river continues to run by the grace of God alone.  Of course, under the ESA, the Middle Rio Grande Collaborative Program's primary directive is to make sure there's enough water to keep the Silvery Minnow alive.  But it sure can seem like clunky way of getting to the main point.  Perhaps an Endangered Rivers Act that guarantees instream flow would be a more elegant solution.