Six bills that weaken species protections move in Congress

Lawmakers shift the focus to politics, not science, as a deciding factor of designation.

 

Along with fall weather, October brought a swirl of legislation aimed at weakening the Endangered Species Act. That’s not surprising: Many Congressional Republicans have long made clear their disdain for the 44-year-old legislation, which many view as impeding industry. Now, with control of both houses of Congress and the White House, the Republican Party may have the political clout on Capitol Hill to fundamentally alter endangered species protection.

Here are some of the key bills that have made it out of committee so far. While some proposed legislation would hamstring the ESA, weakening its power overall, other bills focus on rolling back protections for particular species or groups of species. All efforts reveal a determination to interpret the ESA as narrowly as possible by limiting the law to protecting species themselves, not critical habitats or ecosystems. It’s an interpretation that could alter the landscape of the West. It’s also a sticking point with pro-ESA members of Congress, who see habitat conservation as essential for species protection – and a key part of the act’s original intent.

Federally Integrated Species Health Act

H.R. 3916 (Rep. Ken Calvert, R-CA)

Most salmon are anadromous: They hatch in freshwater streams, grow up in the ocean, then return to their birth rivers to spawn. This migratory lifestyle means that two different agencies, in two different departments, manage the country’s threatened and endangered salmon species: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the Department of the Interior, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, in the Department of Commerce. The bill, H.R. 3916, would turn the management of salmon and similar species wholly over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While having one agency manage these fish sounds sensible, there are a few concerns. First, the Fish and Wildlife Service already has a backlog of candidate endangered species that it lacks time or funds to list, let alone manage, and this bill does not add any funds. Additionally, the current Department of the Interior prioritizes energy production such as hydropower over conservation. Supporters of the Federally Integrated Species Health Act include the Oregon-based Family Farm Alliance, which in a letter of support for the bill blames endangered species management and drought for falling levels of water available for agriculture.

One bill moving through Congress would keep gray wolves off the federal endangered species list in Wyoming and the western Great Lakes region by blocking lawsuits to have the species relisted.

Gray Wolf State Management Act

H.R. 424 (Collin C. Peterson, D-MN).

After trying for more than a decade, Wyoming successfully got its wolves removed from Endangered Species Act protections this past spring. Much of the state is now open to hunting wolves on sight. One concern of environmental groups who sued to block the delisting was a lack of clarity about how many wolves the state will maintain; although the state has committed to “at least” 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves total, that wording is vague and could mean that Wyoming maintains so few wolves, the state’s population risks extinction once more. Yet H.R. 424, which is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Collin C. Peterson from Minnesota, would block lawsuits to reinstate federal protection, ensuring wolves remain delisted in Wyoming and the western Great Lakes. The bill marks a shift toward greater state authority in the management of endangered species, which may also mean that state politics have more sway than science.

Saving America's Endangered Species Act

H.R. 2603 (Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-TX)

Not all rare species in the West evolved here: some arrive as exotic pets, circus entertainers, hunting trophies, food delicacies, even sources of alternative medicine. Nevada is the most paws-off, with no state law regulating exotic pets, and a patchwork of laws that vary at the local level. By listing nonnative species, the Fish and Wildlife Service can regulate their movement to and within the United States, safeguarding everything from lion cubs to macaws, while helping protect the country from introduced pathogens and invasive species. Just this month the service and partner agencies concluded Operation Jungle Book in Los Angeles, leading to 16 convictions and rescuing more than 200 wild animals from trafficking, including a malnourished Bengal tiger and five arowana fish flown from Vietnam to Florida inside luggage. H.R. 2603 would put an end to such operations by prohibiting the listing of nonnative species under the Endangered Species Act. According to Rep. Gohmert, listing nonnative species harms their conservation by limiting private citizens’ captive breeding programs.

State, Tribal, and Local Species Transparency and Recovery Act

H.R. 1274 (Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-WA)

This bill requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to use data submitted by a state, county, or tribal government when deciding whether or not a species is endangered or threatened. But more information isn’t necessarily better in a world of nature politicized. The Endangered Species Act instructs the federal government to make listing decisions “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available” – not all the data, but the best data: objective, generally peer-reviewed, and, ideally, available through academic publications. For some rare species, such as the federally threatened Gila trout, state scientists are among the experts producing the best data. But forcing the agency to always use data from local stakeholders or regional government entities – who might want a certain outcome on a listing decision, as in the case of the much-polarized lesser prairie chicken – could skew listing results for high-stakes outcomes.

Lesser prairie chicken populations could be impacted by bills aimed at weakening the Endangered Species Act.

Listing Reform Act

H.R. 717 (Rep. Pete Olson, R-TX)

Although the ESA was written to base listing decisions on science, H.R. 717 seeks to revise the act so that the Fish and Wildlife Service considers economic impacts first, which range from private property values, to the provisioning of public services such as water and power, to state and local revenue streams. The bill would make the listing process even more unwieldy than it already is, because listing or delisting a species – such as the grizzly bear – affects different communities in different ways. Petitions to list species as threatened would almost certainly be effectively blocked. Currently, when the agency finds a threatened species “warranted but precluded” for listing, that means that the species is threatened, but the agency does not have the resources to list it. Under this bill, the agency could choose not to list a species as threatened because of the anticipated economic effects of the listing. Since the bill does not specify who would identify possible economic losses at the state or local level, it’s hard to say how accurate or even-handed those findings would be.

Meanwhile, petitions to list species as endangered would be slowed down more than they already are—possibly forever; one common reason for Endangered Species Act lawsuits by environmental groups is because the Fish and Wildlife Service takes more than the year allowed by the act to decide whether to list a species. This bill allows the agency to decide “as expeditiously as practicable.” Yet before considering any petitions to list a species as threatened or endangered, the Fish and Wildlife Service would first have to resolve any pending petitions to remove a species from listing.

Endangered Species Litigation Reasonableness Act

HR 3131 (Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-MI)

This bill is short and blunt: Citizens who bring suits under the ESA will have a hard time recovering attorneys’ fees, even if they win their cases. Currently, under the “citizen suits” provision of the Endangered Species Act, courts award the costs of litigation – including lawyers’ fees and expert witness fees – to any party that they deem appropriate. According to the National Law Review, the coverage of such legal fees can make the difference as to whether private citizens can sue so that environmental laws are followed. If this bill passed, litigation fees, which would be awarded to the prevailing parties, would not necessarily include lawyer or court fees. When they did, reimbursements rates would be capped.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor for High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers