Mapping the Endangered Species Act ‘Tidal Wave?

Commentary

Mapping the Endangered Species Act ‘Tidal Wave?

The Endangered Species Act is often thought of as a Western issue, and as “out there” in so-called flyover country. But as a “tidal wave” of 878 species* is listed under the Act over the next decade or so, which will result in an approximately 50% increase in the number of species under the law’s protection, the geography and regulatory reach of the Endangered Species Act is expanding radically. If you think the Endangered Species Act has been problematic and conflict-laden up until now, it is going to get massively worse.

Regions of the country that have been little impacted by the Act, such as the Midwest, Great Plains, and large portions of the South, Southwest, Intermountain West and even East are going to feel the impact of what is widely regarded as America’s most powerful environmental law. Most of these tidal wave species are dependent on aquatic, riparian and wetland habitat, which means the regulatory impacts due to them could well encompass entire watersheds, not just the discrete areas of habitat most people associate with terrestrial species. Also, a number of the species that are not freshwater-based have enormous ranges that span many millions of acres. Yet describing this process of the immense expansion the Endangered Species Act is undergoing has limited impact. Words can only go so far.

Fortunately, the office of the Comptroller of Texas commissioned a series of stunning and highly informative maps that depict the coming tidal wave (available here). The leading edges of the tidal wave have already hit, such as in northern Indiana (as I discussed here in a previous post) and likely in north-central Florida (here in a previous post) where species are being used, or likely will be used, to control water quantity and quality. But the most significant tidal wave species so far is the lesser prairie chicken, which was listed at the end of March and inhabits 40 million acres in five states (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado), including the Permian Basin of western Texas and eastern New Mexico that produces 15% of U.S. oil and 5% of U.S. natural gas. The prairie chicken is already having a significant impact on the oil industry in western Kansas (see here and here).

Often it is hard to grasp the geographic extent of the Endangered Species Act’s reach. While it is possible to obtain maps of some individual species’s ranges, it has not been possible until now to get a broader sense of the Act’s spatial dimensions for listed and potentially listed species. Now, however, with the maps commissioned by the Texas Comptroller all this has changed. There are several important aspects of these maps.

First, they are the only publicly available maps that depict the coming tidal wave for the entire country. Second, they illustrate the tidal wave using two sets of maps-one set of states, the other of watersheds-and this allows for two different ways to grasp the issue. It is imperative that states and municipalities get a better handle on the tidal wave of species headed their way, both at the macro, state level, as well as the finer resolution watershed level.

Third, the two sets of maps consist of three maps each (in addition to a separate set for the state of Texas), which depict the current and future distribution of species; the species listed under the Endangered Species Act as of July 2014, the tidal wave species, and a third map that combines the first two in order to provide a visual representation of what the Endangered Species Act is going to look like when all the tidal wave species are listed. Fourth, the set of maps based on watersheds is important because entire watersheds, or significant portions of them, are likely going to be subjected to the Endangered Species Act’s fearsome regulatory reach due to the large number of freshwater aquatic species. In fact, this is already occurring and likely going to expand, as I discussed in the two aforementioned posts.

One example is the Ichetucknee siltsnail, an obscure snail that lives in a single freshwater spring in north-central Florida that is ten square yards, or 0.02 of an acre, in size. So at first glance it would seem that if the snail were listed under the Endangered Species Act, as appears likely, any potential regulatory impacts would be limited to the tiny spring. Yet the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the two groups responsible for the 2011 lawsuit settlement that is resulting in the tidal wave of species, has made ominous references to water quality and quantity issues that purportedly are affecting the snail, such as groundwater withdrawal and water quality degradation from agriculture and residential landscaping, across the entire 256,000 acre watershed that feeds the 0.02 acre spring in which the snail lives. Talk about a multiplier effect.

The bigger picture is that this is an example of what is coming across much of the country that contains these freshwater aquatic species; the South, Midwest, scattered portions of the Southwest, Intermountain West, and even portions of the East. For example, all 374 of the tidal wave species found predominantly in the South are freshwater based. But because a number of these species have such large ranges, their watershed-based habitats extend over almost the entire Eastern and Midwestern U.S. (as depicted in a separate map available here). Then there are terrestrial tidal wave species that also have enormous ranges, such as the greater sage grouse-which lives across 165 million acres in eleven western states and may be proposed for listing in September 2015-and the lesser prairie chicken.

So take a look at the maps on the Texas Comptroller’s website. More importantly, get the word out about the Endangered Species Act tidal wave by sending the maps to people you know.

*The cause of the tidal wave is a 2011 lawsuit settlement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a couple environmental pressure groups (Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Earth Guardians) that requires the Service to consider for listing under the Act 878 species by 2016. Final listing decisions must be made for 253 of these species by 2016, which means the remaining 625 species are in the pipeline for later consideration. (Apologies for the apparent confusion about the numbers of species involved and chronology for their listing, as I have cited a different total and timeline in previous posts-757 species, with 251 final listing decisions by 2018-but there are several different published totals for the lawsuit settlement, including from the plaintiffs. However, 878 species, with 253 final listing decisions by 2016, appears to be the most accurate total)

Brian Seasholes is a former research fellow with Reason Foundation.