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The Maguire Daisy: Regulatory Triumph or Bureaucratic Blunder?

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"Tiny Flower Saved from Extinction," is how the New York Times headlined its report about the Maguire daisy, which was removed this week from the endangered species list after a near-miraculous recovery assisted by good old Uncle Sam. Or that's what readers were led to believe.

"The delisting of the Maguire daisy shows that the Endangered Species Act is an effective tool not only to save species from the brink of extinction but also to recover them to healthy populations," assistant Secretary of Interior Tom Strickland was quoted as saying. The desert flower joins a growing list of rare plants and animals pulled back from the brink of oblivion thanks to federal intervention, reported the Times, "including such species as the bald eagle, the Virginia northern flying squirrel, the American peregrine falcon, the red kangaroo and the North Pacific population of the gray whale."

But that's shameless spin. "Saving" the daisy is not the regulatory triumph Times readers were encouraged to believe: It's actually a case of bureaucratic bumbling and regulatory malpractice that took 25 years to correct.

The daisy didn't need "saving" because it was never in serious danger, which you would only learn by reading the far more nuanced, far more accurate, far more honest account published in the Salt Lake Tribune.

It turns out the southern Utah desert's rare Maguire daisy wasn't nearly as rare as believed.

First listed as an endangered species in 1985 and downgraded to threatened in 1996, the brushy little white flower that peeks out from under rocks on sandstone mesas and in canyons is now "recovered" and will disappear entirely from the list of federally protected species.

Once thought to have only seven specimens in the San Rafael Swell's Calf Canyon, the daisy now numbers at least 163,000 plants, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It's not just that the plants thrived under protection, said Bekee Hotze, the agency's chief of terrestrial endangered species for Utah. Rather, the scrutiny that came with the daisy's listing led an interagency botany team to search for more, and they found plenty growing south through the swell and in Capitol Reef National Park.

"This species probably got listed too quickly," said Tony Frates, conservation coordinator for the Utah Native Plant Society. It likely wouldn't happen today, he added, because the government is more thorough in its research before listings.

The daisy is one of many species that gain federal protection erroneously or prematurely, only to have researchers later discover that the science was flawed and the threat was exaggerated. About a third of all species removed from the list fall into this category. They gain federal protection under false pretenses, forced onto the list, usually, by lawsuit-happy green groups pursuing an anti-development agenda. The daisy served as a pawn in efforts to block drilling and mining in Utah's San Rafael Swell, and the ploy probably worked, as it usually does.

Proponents of the "precautionary principle" see nothing wrong with such listings: "better safe than sorry" and "whatever it takes" are their mantras. But that presumes that such erroneous or premature listings are cost-free events, with few consequences for anyone other than the plant or animal being "protected." This ignores the mounting "opportunity costs" of having federal bureaucrats working to protect something that doesn't need protection, instead of spending their time protecting species in real need of attention. And the critical habitat designations that accompany such listings carry significant costs for those on whom the regulatory hammer falls, whether it be the energy company denied a drilling permit, the recreationists denies access to a road or trail, the private land owner who must hire a professional consultant, and commission a study, before she can construct a tool shed in the "critical habitat" overlaying her property.

Better "science" will sooner or later expose some of these scams -- usually later. But by then a lot of unnecessary costs have been incurred, and a lot of regulatory damage has been done. The listing has locked-up thousands or tens of thousands of acres of "critical habitat," sometimes for decades, even though the species for whom it's set aside is not in critical condition. That's how the endangered species game is played. And it is a game -- albeit one with huge implications for those unfortunate enough to get crushed by the regulatory steamroller that a listing unleashes.

A Google search of news coverage shows that virtually all of it paints this as an Endangered Species Act "success story," although it's just the opposite. The Maguire daisy actually shows how flawed listing "science" can be, how slowly the bureaucracy catches bad listings and how vulnerable the law is to misuse and abuse.

Around the Web

Maguire daisy - US Fish and Wildlife Service Home

An Endangered Species Success Story: Interior Department's U.S. ...

Utah's Maguire daisy to be delisted | Deseret News

MAGUIRE DAISY - Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

Maguire daisy - Yahoo! News Photos