Good Government

Free Market Friday: Give the feds the bird

September 9, 2016

Jonathan Small

Congress threatened to stop it, a federal judge delayed it, but, in the end, it was local leaders in Oklahoma and neighboring states who stopped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the lesser prairie chicken as endangered.

Such a listing, under the Endangered Species Act, would have extended federal control across broad swaths of private land in Oklahoma. In fact, the dispute always had more to do with power than birds.

It is no secret that the Obama administration, if it could, would shut down most of Oklahoma’s oil and gas economy. While oil production on private and state lands jumped 89 percent from 2010 to 2014, production on federal lands actually dropped by 10 percent.

This administration’s positions have also worried farmers, particularly its attempt to claim control over every ditch or watering hole in the country, even ones that are usually dry, by labeling them all “waters of the United States.” Thankfully, a federal judge stopped the agency’s power grab, at least for now.

This summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service dropped its attempt to list the lesser prairie chicken as endangered after a judge forced the federal agency to acknowledge local conservation efforts. State and local officials, together with leaders from the business community, committed millions of dollars and set aside over 9 million acres of bird habitat.

You might think federal officials charged with protecting wildlife would welcome these actions and celebrate the fact that lesser prairie chicken populations have increased for several years. Instead, the agency has threatened to come back again in an effort to list the bird and extend its regulatory reach. Even the threat of a listing creates uncertainty for land and business owners.

The United States was set up with layers of government for a couple of reasons. One was simply to limit government power by breaking it up. Another was to keep power closer to the people, making elections more meaningful and accountability more possible.

The controversy, including expensive lawsuits, over a little grouse in western Oklahoma shows how much better it is when these sorts of policies are left to the states and local communities. What Oklahoma leadership did actually helped the bird. What Washington, D.C., is still doing is simply trying to extend and increase its own power.