Special Report

Shoot, Shovel & Shut Up

More adventures brought to you by the mad enforcers of the Endangered Species Act.

By 4.7.04

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My first reaction if I spotted a red-cockaded woodpecker in our yard would probably be to fill the bird feeder and toss around some bread. If I saw him twice, I'd most likely buy another birdhouse, with a hole fitted to woodpeckers.

The last thing I'd do is run for my gun, or cut down the tree. But that's exactly what people are doing, thanks to the pro-bird bureaucrats in the federal government.

In their study of red-cockaded woodpeckers in North Carolina, "Pre-emptive Habitat Destruction Under the Endangered Species Act," economists Dean Lueck, at Montana State University, and Jeffrey A. Michael, at North Carolina State University, show that landowners have "pre-emptively destroyed" the habitats of endangered species in order to avoid potential land-use regulations prescribed under the Endangered Species Act.

"Under the ESA it is not only illegal to kill an endangered species, but it is also illegal to damage their habitat," explain Lueck and Michael. "By preventing the establishment of an old-growth pine stand, landowners can ensure that red-cockaded woodpeckers do not inhabit their land and avoid ESA regulations that limit or prohibit timber harvest activity."

Checking data on timber harvesting for 16 years in more than 1,000 individual forests, the professors found that "increases in the proximity of a plot to red-cockaded woodpeckers increases the probability that the plot will be harvested and decreases the age at which the forest is harvested."

It's best to cut down the trees, in short, if a woodpecker is spotted anywhere nearby. It's sort of like neighbors not wanting a new pool hall to open in a nearby storefront, lest it attract the wrong characters. In this case, it's old-growth trees that might attract the wrong thing, a bird in allegedly short supply accompanied by its allies from a heavy-handed regulatory system.

T.R. Mader, research director at the Abundant Wildlife Society of North America, provides a specific example: "An elderly couple in Georgia, needing money for medical expenses, sought to sell timber on their private land only to be stopped by a bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker. No, the bird doesn't live on their land, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Georgia Forestry Commission officials reportedly found 17 trees with 'possible' abandoned red-cockaded woodpecker nests. The family has lived there for 80 years. Nobody, including the FWS, has ever seen this woodpecker on the property." Still, no birds, no timber harvesting, no money for medical expenses.

The conclusion by Lueck and Michael? "The Endangered Species Act actually reduces the amount of endangered species habitat."

IT'S THE SAME WITH MICE. A study published last December in Conservation Biology examined the reaction of private landowners to the listing under the Endangered Species Act of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse as "threatened." More than 30,000 acres in Colorado and Wyoming are listed as "critical habitat" for the mouse, meaning mandatory set-asides and restricted building options for landowners. What the study found was that landowners, once a species is listed, are more likely to destroy needed habitat than they are to adopt conservation measures.

More is being destroyed, unfortunately, than wildlife habitat: In California, people have seen their homes burn to the ground because they weren't permitted to create a firewall by plowing under brush on their own property, brush that was officially designated as "critical habitat" for kangaroo rats.

In New York, a court, citing endangered species law, ruled that property owners couldn't install a short snake-proof fence to prevent rattlers from freely traversing their land. In Washington state, four firefighters died in an out-of-control fire in the Okanogan National Forest after repeated requests to obtain water from a river containing "endangered" fish were denied by the U.S. Forest Service.

Robert J. Smith, director of environmental studies at the Cato Institute, provides the lesson that the government is teaching: "Make sure there is nothing on your land that might attract wildlife or rare species. It will merely bring oppressive attention from federal bureaucrats." The solution that people have come up with when they spot something that's allegedly endangered on their property? It's called "shoot, shovel and shut up."

The government's answer, in short, has backfired. What started out as a goal of protecting bald eagles and grizzlies has turned into a bureaucracy that now puts rats and bugs ahead of property rights and the lives of firefighters.

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.