“The federal government needs to live up to their agreements, stop saying one thing and then doing another, and use some mechanism to prevent the goal posts from being moved both by the administrative agency and the judicial branch,” said Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation (WyFB) Executive Vice President, at a recent congressional forum regarding reform of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

The Congressional Western Caucus and House Committee on Natural Resources (Working Group) launched a joint ESA Working Group in July 2023. An ESA Working Group forum was held September 13, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Hamilton was one of five stakeholders to speak directly about the impact of the ESA and the need for reform of the Act.

Hamilton emphasized that the federal government must acknowledge the importance of private landowners. “The federal government should work to develop trust with landowners,” Hamilton said. “Incentives and more substantial guaranties for landowners who have species on their land are necessary for the ESA to work better.”

Hamilton described Wyoming’s climate and topography to the Working Group and noted cattle are the largest commodity raised in Wyoming. “Many of our members are 4th or 5th generation ranchers or farmers,” Hamilton stated. “My parents were the 3rd generation and my nephew is the 5th generation to work on our family ranch purchased by my great grandfather.”

Hamilton noted there are a multitude of species in Wyoming listed on the ESA that impact Wyoming citizens. His testimony focused on large predators listed as endangered, the wolves and the grizzly bears.

“It’s a significant challenge to have protected predator species being introduced or moving into an area with livestock,” Hamilton said. “Cattle and sheep are both on the list of food items for wolves and grizzly bears.”

Hamilton knows this firsthand from both a policy perspective and a ranching family’s perspective. He has worked for WyFB for nearly 40 years. 

On the policy side, WyFB opposed the federal government’s proposal to introduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park from the beginning. “We were actively involved in the process for introduction because our members had multiple concerns,” he said. “While the introduction process identified the Greater Yellowstone Area as the primary area for wolves, no one seriously thought wolves would be content to remain in that area.”

From a ranching family’s perspective, the Hamilton Ranch saw this come true. “This is exactly what occurred for my brother when a wolf attacked his sheep in July 2010,” Hamilton explained. “That attack killed 18 lambs and one ewe, and then six nights later the wolf returned and killed five more lambs.”

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) employee who investigated the incidents felt it was the work of one wolf,” he continued. “It should be noted that none of the killed lambs or the ewe were eaten.”

“For a time, the Defenders of Wildlife provided compensation for wolf depredation, and now the Wyoming Game and Fish Department provides some compensation,” he stated. “But the actions of the federal government make it clear that impacts caused by species on the ESA are not considered.”

Hamilton suggested Congress place state wildlife agencies on a more even footing with USFWS so the process is more a partnership with the state. “In Wyoming, most ranchers develop a working relationship with the state Game & Fish personnel,” he explained. “These relationships are mutually respectful and afford a level of trust that is absent from working with USFWS personnel.”

Another area that needs reformed is the recovery process needed for delisting a species. “A concern for our members is that delisting will not occur once recovery levels are reached,” stated Hamilton. “Moving the goal post is not uncommon when dealing with the federal government, and it has created distrust between Wyoming citizens and the Service.” 

He gave an example of the moving goal posts with wolves. “The initial recovery goal for wolves of ten breeding pairs in each of the three states was changed several times by the Fish and Wildlife Service,” he explained. “First the Service decided the 100 wolves in Yellowstone, which is primarily in Wyoming, should not count towards Wyoming’s population. Then they decided that another 50 wolves, or five breeding pairs, should be allowed.” 

“Wyoming officials continued to negotiate with FWS and eventually reached an agreement that resulted in a proposal for wolves to be delisted for Wyoming,” Hamilton continued. “Of course, to no one’s surprise, this decision was immediately challenged in the courts – another concern for our members. It would be helpful if judicial review of these decisions could be limited.”

Hamilton also drew attention to the economic hardship ESA listings provide for landowners and urged the Working Group to consider the federal government stepping up with financial help.

He also urged the Group to see the importance of the FWS seeking partnerships with landowners. “Private lands are essential to many listed species,” Hamilton said. “Think how much more could be achieved if the federal government would seek to work with landowners rather than create hardships for them.”

“Our members typically live on the land they farm and ranch, and they work with a strong focus on both economic and environmental stewardship,” he continued.

“Congress needs to step in and provide the framework that will allow partnerships to happen and not rely on the federal power to force landowners into situations which cost them money and possibly their farm or ranch,” Hamilton said. “This isn’t good for the landowners or the species.”

According to a memo from the Working Group, the group will make policy recommendations to Congress that reform the ESA to the benefit of both landowners and species. The memo identifies that the Working Group “will examine how the ESA is being implemented by federal agencies, the practical impacts on the American people, how litigation is driving ESA decision making, and how success is defined under the ESA.