Will the proposed Mazda-Toyota automobile plant in Limestone County, Alabama spell the end of the spring pygmy sunfish? Will the spring pygmy sunfish spell the end of the auto plant?  Can’t we have both?

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has announced plans to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for not taking steps to protEect a rare species of fish found only in a spring complex near the site of the proposed manufacturing plant in northern Alabama, west of Huntsville. In early April, Arizona-based CBD filed a formal notice of intent to sue FWS for failing to designate “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the spring pygmy sunfish.

According to the Birmingham News (April 11), the Mazda-Toyota facility is expected to produce 300,000 cars a year and employ 4,000 workers. But CBD says the plant will lead to extensive new development, including roads, buildings, and parking lots throughout the watershed, and by not designating any critical habitat, FWS has neglected its legal responsibility under the ESA to ensure that development does not harm the tiny fish.

CBD’s Call to Arms

“We won’t let this rare fish wait any longer for the protections it’s guaranteed under the Endangered Species Act,” Elise Bennett, an attorney for CBD said in a statement. “Reckless development has already sent this little fish diving toward the brink of extinction.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to protect the sunfish’s habitat immediately before this massive manufacturing plant destroys what’s left of it.”

According to CBD, the developers need to either find a new site for the plant or “serious mitigation measures need to be put in place.”

The spring pygmy sunfish was listed as “threatened” under the ESA in 2013, and FWS sought public comments on critical habitat for the fish, but the process was never completed. There was a time prior to its listing when the species was thought to be extinct until what appears to be a last remnant of the sunfish was found in a spring near the site of the plant. The prospect of the plant being delayed, or even cancelled, due to CBD’s lawsuit has sent chills down the spines of state and local officials who welcome the thousands of jobs the facility will create.

Open to Abuse

For years, CBD has been at the forefront of environmental groups using the ESA and the threat of “climate change” to shut down farming, ranching, manufacturing, mining, and fossil-fuel energy development. The group’s lawsuit is further evidence that the ESA is being cynically used to halt economic development, particularly in rural areas.

The ESA’s “critical habitat” provision grants regulators at FWS almost unchecked power to employ the statute as a land-use mechanism. What’s more, over the years, FWS officials – both political appointees and career bureaucrats – have all but erased the ESA’s original distinction between a species being designated as “threatened” or “endangered.” As a result, the mitigation measures and land-use restrictions imposed by FWS for both threatened and endangered species have affected the livelihood of more and more rural and exurban communities.

The Trump administration’s Interior Department has vowed to do whatever it can to curtail the abuses of the ESA administratively. But until Congress reforms the statute in such a way that no longer pits species against people, more cases like the one in Limestone County are inevitable.

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