Wildlife Service should be held accountable

Editorial

You would think the government would be eager to boast about the success. The American bald eagle, which had dwindled to 500 nesting pairs in the 1960s, has recovered from the brink of extinction.

Maybe that means the Endangered Species Act, under which animals threatened with extinction are placed on a “threatened” list, which triggers a broad array of restrictions on landowners and other Americans, actually worked.

Perhaps, however, the government got enough publicity in 1999, when the Clinton administration announced bald eagles had recovered and there were 5,748 nesting pairs, which meant America’s national bird was eligible to be taken off the list of threatened species. Most experts believe there are now about 8,200 nesting pairs.

Trouble was, bureaucratic inertia set in — and maybe the idea of relinquishing a bit of power over ordinary Americans seemed like such a foreign concept that it was institutionally difficult to set the process in motion — and they never got around to the paperwork. That meant the restrictions stayed in place.

Finally the Pacific Legal Foundation had to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of its client, Edmund Contoski, whose family has for decades owned a few acres in the woods of Minnesota, and who wanted to build a few cabins there. A federal judge in Minnesota last year ordered the bureaucrats to remove the bald eagle from the threatened list, but they recently announced they would miss the deadline.

So the PLF went to court again, and now the Fish and Wildlife Service has promised to get the job done. The bald eagle will still be protected by two federal laws — the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Under those laws it will still be illegal to take, harm or kill the bird. What’s needed are regulations that flesh that language out so it is clear both to regulators and landowners.

The new deadline is June 29. Fish and Wildlife has agreed to issue progress reports between now and then and to meet the deadline. PLF has said if it doesn’t happen this time it may “consider seeking sanctions against specific government officials who are responsible for the delay,” as PLF attorney Damien Schiff put it.

Let’s hope that won’t be necessary.