In the ongoing debate about how to reform the Endangered Species Act, an obscure rodent in southern Utah holds some important lessons, especially that a bad law combined with federal overreach results in lousy conservation.
Just ask Dean and Kathy Lamoreaux. In 1990 they purchased a 200-acre farm near Cedar City, Utah. At the time, the property contained no Utah prairie dogs, one of five species of the rodent native to North America, which lives entirely within the borders of Utah. Then in the mid-1990s problems started when prairie dogs began occupying their property. Prairie dog mounds and burrows have caused thousands of dollars of damage to the Lamoreaux’s farm equipment. But in order for Dean and Kathy to be eligible for an exemption under the Endangered Species Act to have some prairie dogs killed or moved off their land, they must first construct a fence, which would cost them additional thousands of dollars.
The Lamoreaux’s are two of the many landowners who have lost millions of dollars to the Utah prairie dog, including farmers who lose $1.5 million a year in crop and equipment damage, according to a 1984 estimate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Since then, as the prairie dog population increased by about 30 percent, property losses and damage have also increased. Dean and Kathy Lamoreaux, like many landowners who harbor endangered species, are not anti-environment. In fact, like most rural landowners, they take great pride in conserving their land. They just think they alone should not have to shoulder the financial burden of harboring imperiled species.
The basic unfairness of the Endangered Species Act is readily apparent to most. “If I’m a landowner and someone is running a highway through my land, I may not like it, but at least I’m being compensated for it,” according to William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, in a radio interview. “If I’m forced to put buffers alongside streams that run through my land in order to protect [endangered] salmon, sometimes those buffers take a significant amount of my land, and I think they should be compensated for that. If that’s a public good and it’s being asserted against a private property owner, then why shouldn’t the public pay for it the same way they do with a highway? But we don’t.”