What’s the difference between a ferruginous pygmy owl living in Arizona and a ferruginous pygmy owl living just across the border in Sonora, Mexico? And no, south-of-the-border birds do not wear tiny sombreros.
If you answered, “nothing,” you’ve just shown more common sense than the geniuses in Washington who wrote and passed the Endangered Species Act 30 years ago this month, or their successors who enforce the law today.
In fact, there is no biological difference between the two birds, except in the eyes of the ESA. It insists that the relatively few owls found in Arizona be counted as endangered, granting them special protections that have had considerable negative economic impacts on areas where they are found, in spite of the fact that the birds are plentiful just south of the border. In practice, the law Balkanizes animal species according to nation-state boundaries, meaning that an American population of animals is counted as a separate, self-contained group, even though an abundance of identical critters can be found living elsewhere.
Animals, of course, don’t respect such borders; Canada geese, for instance, don’t confine their activities to Canada. But the law doesn’t recognize that simple fact, in one of many absurdities that demands a correction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week asked a federal judge to remove the bird from the endangered list, given that pygmy owls are in no real danger of extinction and because of the dramatic impact the listing has had in Arizona, where 1.2 million acres were set aside as critical habitat. A panel of federal judges already ruled once that the bird’s 1997 listing was “arbitrary and capricious.” But radical environmental groups are predictably pledging to fight the de-listing, lest they lose a powerful tool for halting development in the Tucson area.
We offer this story as just one more reminder of why the ESA is an out-of-control, counter-to-common-sense law badly in need of an overhaul or outright repeal.