‘Preserving’ everything but man

Back when the Endangered Species Act was being debated in Congress, everyone seemed to have a pretty good idea what they were talking about. The eastern woodland bison was already extinct, along with the passenger pigeon. Nothing to be done about any of those — barring the miraculous discovery of a remnant population, or some kind of cloning project out of a science fiction novel.

But moving forward, no one wanted, through sheer negligence, to preside over the death of the last breeding pair of such "totemic" species — species important to Americans’ self-image and the history of our land — as the western bison, the grizzly bear, or the bald eagle.

Most Americans would still agree with that reasonable goal. But endangered species legislation turned out to contain a Trojan Horse or two — provisions so extreme and nutty that even fans of the law are reluctant to see it brought back before Congress for overdue reauthorization, lest common sense prevail, placing some restrictions on third-party lawsuits seeking to block or delay virtually any project designed to benefit mankind by hunting up a cat’s-paw weed or bug to be suddenly wept and moaned over, declared "threatened or endangered."

Take the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plan to pump groundwater to Las Vegas from east central Nevada.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to debate the need or advisability of the project, starting with its cost. But far easier than debating the project on its merits is to dig up — sometimes literally — a "species" hardly anyone has ever heard of, insisting that said creature must be preserved in its current habitat … even if there are plenty more in the valley next door, even it was moved there artificially.

Sure enough, we’re now informed environmentalists are mighty concerned that pumping water from the Spring and Snake valleys might disturb the Big Springs spinedace and the Pahrump poolfish — the latter an artificially introduced species — both the kind of critters that would be referred to in most of the world as "live bait."

But wait, that’s not all. We’re now informed the green extreme may employ "a snail the size of a pinhead" that lives in eastern Nevada springs — the "longitudinal gland pyrg" — as another excuse to block or delay this project.

Officials at the SNWA maintain they can pump the groundwater while preserving the tiny snail. Fine. But the more important question is: Why should they even have to worry about it? We’re talking about water that may be needed to help a human city survive … and a snail the size of a pinhead.

What next? Banning chlorination of the water because it threatens the increasingly rare species vibrio cholerae — the bacterium that causes cholera? This is nuts.

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