Smokey the Bear is famous for teaching generations of children that “only you can prevent forest fires.” But a new Congressional report suggests that we now may need to add the qualification “unless the Endangered Species Act stops you.”

The report by the Endangered Species Act Congressional Working Group details the many ways in which the current litigation-driven model of endangered species protection is costly and counter-productive. First passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) allows private group to enforce the law’s often hidebound requirements through litigation.

Among its many findings are that ESA litigation has “increased the federal government’s inability to control catastrophic wildfires.”

The working group found that ESA strictures have impeded efforts both to prevent wildfires and to stop them once started. In Montana, for example, environmentalists sued to block an approved Grizzly Vegetation Management project in Kootenai National Forrest. The accumulation of driftwood and unhealthy vegetation can leave an area at increased risk of fire, and the project involved habitat improvement, timber thinning, and other wildfire prevention measures. Due to the litigation, however, the project was blocked, and the area is now identified as being at a “significant risk of wildfire.”

The ESA has also limited the use of wildfire-fighting technologies such as aerial retardant heavily mechanized equipment, and has restricted the use of water in some fire-fighting efforts “due to concerns about potential impacts to other ESA-listed species, such as salmon.”

Recovery efforts can also be impeded by the ESA. Attempts to clear debris from 2011 fires in Bastrop, Texas, were slowed due to concerns over the endangered Houston Toad.

Ironically, endangered species are themselves at risk from wildfires. As noted in the report:

Endangered species habitat destruction was a reality last year, when the Arizona Game and Fish Department noted that two major fires resulted in the destruction of 20 percent of Mexican spotted owl nests known to exist in the world. 

The Working Group report highlights the urgent need for the ESA to be reformed so it can offer real protection to endangered species in a flexible and efficient manner.