Home on the Range for Wolves

CAN you envision a Montana rancher telling his cowboys not to disturb a pair of wolves raising a litter of pups? Such a scenario is almost unimaginable in a state where ranchers commonly assert that ``shoot, shovel, and shut up'' is the best way to handle endangered species.

But a rancher near Augusta, Mont., took the advice of state and federal biologists to minimize human disturbance. Three pups were raised, the first record of wolf denning along the Rocky Mountain Front in 50 years.

Part of the rancher's motivation was a reward offered by the Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group that wants to hear wolves howling again in Montana. Defenders has paid the rancher $5,000, the first cash award under its program to encourage the natural regeneration of wolves. (The rancher wants to remain anonymous, a sign that his neighbors may not look kindly on his actions.)

The cash award program is the idea of Hank Fischer, the organization's Northern Rockies representative. In 1987 he recognized that ranchers were opposed to wolf recovery because they feared wolves would kill their livestock. To overcome the opposition, he took what he calls ``a foray into free-market environmentalism'' by establishing a Wolf Compensation Fund to pay for livestock depredation. So far, the compensation fund has paid $12,000 to about a dozen ranchers.

Mr. Fischer recognized that this was only half of the free-market equation. In 1992 he established another private fund to reward any private landowner for giving wolves a home. ``We're experimenting to learn whether the carrot of economic incentives can be more powerful than the stick of the Endangered Species Act,'' he says.

The Defenders programs offer Congress a new approach as it considers reauthorizing the Endangered Species Act. Under the act, the use of any land that provides endangered species habitat can be severely restricted. On public lands, the spotted owl controversy provides the quintessential example.

On private lands, the harm can be severe. Recently, the Fish and Wildlife Service threatened to cut off water rights to half the farmers and ranchers in Idaho's Bruneau Valley so the Bruneau Hot Springs snail would have enough moisture - until a federal judge removed it from the endangered species list.

Homeowners in Riverside County, Calif., were less fortunate. The Fish and Wildlife Service told property owners they could not make firebreaks on their property because they might harm the kangaroo rat. The result: Many unprotected houses burned down.

Small wonder that private landowners hesitate or refuse to divulge the existence of endangered species on their land, let alone encourage their propagation.

Why not turn the incentives around? Make habitat for endangered species on private land an asset, not a liability. The Defenders program has won the support of free-market environmentalists and has been applauded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

At a time when the Endangered Species Act needs some success, adopting the carrot rather than the stick approach offers Congress a positive alternative in the reauthorization debate. Under the stick, only about 20 species have been removed from the list during the past two decades, and nearly half were removed due to errors in the original listing.

Imagine what could happen if private owners of timberlands were paid $5,000 for every pair of spotted owls nesting on their property! The US Department of Agriculture currently rents land under its Conservation Reserve Program. Why not rent land from private owners who control key endangered species habitat?

The success story with wolves should provide the impetus for innovative changes in our approach to endangered species. Fischer is right when he says: ``Economic incentives offer a greater likelihood of public acceptance than increased regulation.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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