Speech by the Director, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the: Western Governor Association: Environmental Summit on the West

It is an honor to be here today as a partner for the West. I welcome this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the future of conservation in the West, and also on a subject that is on many people's minds the future of the Endangered Species Act.

Let me begin by saying that the ENLIBRA doctrine is a tribute to the foresight and bold leadership of the Western Governor Association. The principles it so eloquently sets forth mark the common ground shared by your group and the Fish and Wildlife Service:

  1. We don't want law suits. We want to identify problems and collaborate to find solutions that everyone can live with.
  2. At the Service, we prefer to motivate through incentives than to impose through regulation. Why? Because that way we engage you, we enter into partnerships, and when it comes to conserving our nation's wildlife, we all need to work together.
  3. Just like you, we don't want to see species placed on the endangered species list; each new listing represents a wildlife conservation failure. We must get ahead of the curve, identify species in trouble and put ecosystems in working order before the situation leads to an endangered species listing.

Ultimately, that is what everyone wants species kept off the list. In the West, it is of particular concern. The Great Plains prairie, once America's most extensive ecosystem, is now considered among the rarest and most fragmented. Water quality is a concern throughout the region. Natural fires are flaring up fiercer than ever, consuming thousands upon thousands of acres, fueled by the dead and dry brush accumulated through fire suppression policies.

The consequences: species in trouble. The black-footed ferret, the California gnatcatcher and the spotted owl are among the high-profile, endangered species of the West. And other species such as the black-tailed prairie dog, the mountain plover, and the swift fox are in a perilous state, possibly warranting eventual endangered status if we don't act now. Even our best efforts probably won't keep them all from being listed -- they are too far down the road to extinction. But what our best efforts can ensure is that not a single one will be a "train wreck."

Of course, to some extent that depends on the future of the Endangered Species Act. I wish I could speak to the future of the Act with certainty. But we continue to wait for reauthorization. The Western Governor Association deserves tremendous credit for its many constructive suggestions to improve the Act. You helped provide the basis for the bill that Senator Kempthorne championed this year in the Senate. Senators Kempthorne, Chafe, Baucus and Reed deserve a lot of credit for their leadership on this issue. We almost got the Endangered Species Act reauthorized, but not quite. Until we do we will continue to carry on with administrative reforms, which, I hope most of you will agree, are indeed moving in the right direction.

In contrast to the uncertainty around the Act, the future of conservation is relatively clear. To keep species off the Endangered List, to fight invasive exotics, and to conserve migratory birds, we are going to need to work together more closely than ever before. America's National Wildlife Refuge system is the world's largest and most magnificent network of public lands devoted exclusively to fish, wildlife and plants. Without good land stewards as neighbors, our refuges will become conservation islands, vulnerable to external threats.

Many of our refuge managers have enjoyed a positive, collaborative relationship with state fish and wildlife officials and private landowners. We need to build on those existing relationships. The Refuge Improvement Act passed this year gives us an opportunity to do just that. The Act calls for the development of comprehensive conservation plans for each refuge, and many of you are going to be crucial partners in that effort.

Reaching out to partners beyond refuge borders is part of the Fish and Wildlife Service's ecosystem approach to conservation. That approach takes a comprehensive view of landscapes, taking into account the intertwined ecosystem functions that keep the land healthy. To succeed, the ecosystem approach requires buy-in from the states, the private sector, and private citizens.

And that is why I find ENLIBRA particularly exciting. Its principles advocate collaboration and a holistic approach to landscape management that cuts across bureaucratic and state lines. It focuses on action, not just discussion and process.

That is the only way we can tackle environmental problems. We know this to be true through experience. For instance, in efforts to control the spread of invasive, exotic species, we learned that we can not succeed unless everyone is involved. Along with habitat loss, invasive species are a leading contributor to the unnaturally high extinction rate we are presently witnessing. The costs are overwhelming: the zebra mussel, among the most notorious of invasive species, has caused an estimated five billion dollars worth of damage. That is just one species. There are many more, like leafy spurge and salt cedar in the High Plains area.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating these species, documenting their impacts, experimenting with ways to stymie their spread, and disseminating information to states and private citizens.

The Western governors have been among the leaders on this issue. I want to assure you that you will have federal assistance on this in the coming months, you can expect an executive order advocating the development of a national strategy to control all invasive species. It is going to take our combined efforts to bring this problem under control.

Now and in the future, conservation success is going to depend on how well we collaborate with private landowners. Fortunately, we have good, solid programs to build on in this area. Our Partners for Fish and Wildlife program strengthens partnerships with ranchers and farmers by providing them with the technical support they need to conserve open spaces and protect water quality on their lands in a fashion that is compatible with their way of life. The Fish and Wildlife Service has more than 16,000 agreements under this program, most of them in the Western states.

One of them is the Nebraska Sandhills Initiative. In this unique and fragile environment, ranchers and conservationists have learned about new ways to graze cattle so as to avoid water quality problems that would impact the entire ecosystem. Together, they have crafted a management plan for the area that supports ranching activities that minimize impacts on the region's more than 1,000 plant and animal species.

Other collaborative efforts include joint ventures under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. These joint ventures bring together federal and state agencies, corporate partners, special interest organizations and private landowners. Playa Lakes and Prairie Potholes are two joint ventures in the High Plains region. Though these projects are primarily designed to protect habitat for waterfowl, we would like to expand on our waterfowl conservation efforts to include other migratory bird species, such as lark sparrows and mountain plovers, which have declined dramatically over the past 30 years. Our evolving relationships with private landowners will play a big role in that effort.

That is going to be particularly true in the High Plains, where 98 percent of the land is in private hands. We need to take the lessons learned from the Great Plains Partnership and craft a more effective initiative to reverse the declining trend in wildlife populations while sustaining the agricultural economy and lifestyle of the High Plains.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to the High Plains Partnership, and we are eager to work with you to make it a success.

These are just a few of the areas where I see us collaborating. There is no limit to the number and type of partnerships we can forge. Now is the time to be bold and innovative. Together we can seize the opportunities of today and share in the future of our common ground.

We in the Fish and Wildlife Service are prepared and look forward to doing our part. We look forward to working with all of you to conserve the biological heritage of the great West.

Thank you.