Rats, Lies and the GAO

Sugg Testimonry on Wildfires and the Endangered Species Act

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Around 11:30 p.m. on October 26, 1993, high winds downed a powerline in Riverside County, California.  Sparks erupted, and a fire started.  The flames burned over 25,000 acres and consumed 29 of the estimated 300 homes in their path.  19 of the homes destroyed were in habitat designated as “preserve study areas” for the Stephens’ kangaroo rat (k-rat).[2] The problem was that the federal government had effectively prohibited people from disking[3] soil to clear firebreaks in preserve study areas, and virtually all manner of land use was halted in k-rat habitat.


Ever since early 1989, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) had advised residents of Riverside County that disking in k-rat habitat would likely violate the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  To protect the k-rat from people, the FWS prevented people from protecting themselves and their property from fire.  The rodents, as well as the human residents of western Riverside County, lost in the California Fire.


“Great story.  But it turns out not to be true,” writes Jessica Mathews.[4]  Defenders of the ESA have taken the extreme and untenable position that there could be no correlation between preventing people from clearing firebreaks and the burning of their homes.  The vigorous efforts by environmentalists to discredit the fire victims and their voice in the property rights movement are inappropriate.  They cite a recent report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) to support their contention that the loss of homes was not related to the ESA, but that conclusion is invalid.  Not only have the GAO’s conclusions been overstated by ESA defenders, but its report is so replete with inaccuracies and misrepresentations that the probity of its investigation is in serious doubt.

[2] The Stephens’ kangaroo rat (Dipodomys stephensi) was listed as an endangered species in 1988.  There are three other species in the same genus (with 56 subspecies) in California, and 22 closely related species with hundreds of subspecies elsewhere in the U.S.


[3] Disking is a mechanical process, whereby an implement (usually pulled and powered by a tractor) cuts into and overturns soil.  As a result of this process, flammable vegetation is buried underneath soil.


[4] Jessica Mathews, “Endangered Species:  The Truth,” The Washington Post, July 17, 1994.