Endangered Fish

A pallid sturgeon is held by David Hendrix manager of the Neosho National Fish Hatchery in 2003 at Franklin Island, Missouri. The fate of the pallid sturgeon is at the center of a debate involving environmentalists, farmers, navigators, politicians and lawyers.

If you could catch a glimpse of any wild animal, a bottom-feeder in the depths of a muddy river wouldn’t bring as much cachet as an eagle soaring in the sky or a wolf moving mysteriously through rugged woodlands.

But the pallid sturgeon has a few things going for it, starting with longevity. The species has existed since the days of dinosaurs and still looks like something from “Jurassic Park,” with its flattened, shovel-shaped snout and slender tail armored with bony plates instead of scales. The sturgeon may have spent thousands of years lurking in the bottom of the Missouri River, but it rose to prominence when it was listed as an endangered species in 1990.

This endangered status sparked intense efforts to save a species that few modern humans have ever seen. Critics argue that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has turned the Missouri River into a pallid sturgeon laboratory, to the detriment of farmers and property owners along the river. This is a popular view, but blame really rests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which dictates the Corps of Engineers’ actions in an attempt to save the pallid sturgeon and other endangered species.

Now, the Department of the Interior intends to inject some sanity into the nation’s premier wildlife conservation law. The agency proposed a revision to the Endangered Species Act, including a directive to look at economic costs when considering whether a species merits protection. Howls of protest followed, as if bald eagle barbecues and grizzly bear coats are next.

This is the kind of hyperbolic exaggeration that makes it hard to get anything done in Washington. A similar extreme position infuses the gun debate, where any suggestion of control is dismissed immediately as a first step toward a totalitarian government confiscating firearms.

It seems like quite a leap, but at least gun owners have the Constitution in their back pockets. A statute, like the Endangered Species Act, is more easily amended.

With this in mind, Missouri’s lawmakers, farmers and property owners should watch closely these proposed changes, given how efforts to save the pallid sturgeon led to a changed river that’s now more prone to serious flooding.

A change in the Endangered Species Act might not affect river management, since economic costs would not be weighed retroactively. That’s good news for the bald eagle and the grizzly bear, but it still gives a ray of hope to those who have seen how much damage this bottom-feeding fish has caused along the Missouri River.

A common sense revision doesn’t have to be a wholesale destruction of a law intended to save animals. Sometimes, hyperbole is as bad as a lie.