GOP takes aim at reforming Endangered Species Act

GOP takes aim at reforming Endangered Species Act
© Getty Images

Congressional Republicans launched efforts Wednesday aimed at reforming the Endangered Species Act to make it more friendly for states, landowners, industry and others.

The debates in the House and Senate were on bills with specific, limited purposes, not the full-scale comprehensive reforms that Republicans and some industries have been craving.

Nonetheless, the GOP made it clear that they want to make significant changes to the law that they see as outdated, ineffective and unnecessarily costly for states and land users.

ADVERTISEMENT
Democrats, meanwhile, see the proposals as significant threats to a bedrock environmental law and a handout to industries, including oil and natural gas.

The House Natural Resources Committee discussed five bills whose effects would include allowing the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to use economic costs to deny listing a species as threatened, require the agency to prioritize input in listing decisions from states, remove the gray wolf from the endangered list and limit payouts of attorneys’ fees in Endangered Species Act (ESA) litigation.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, meanwhile, debated legislation meant to boost hunting and fishing that has a provision attached to undo the gray wolf listing.

The Obama administration tried to delist the gray wolf, but a federal court reversed the decision. Provisions in both the House and the Senate would instruct the FWS to reinstate the delisting and declare that it is not subject to review by the courts.

“In short, the ESA doesn’t work,” said Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopHouse Natural Resources chairman pledges to retire after next term Trump's monument plan still shrouded in secrecy Greens threaten lawsuit over potential monument reductions MORE (R-Utah). “We have to find a way to reform it so that it actually solves problems, not just continues on the process. Hopefully, working with our colleagues in the Senate and the administration, we can lay a foundation for ESA reform that will do us well.”

Bishop said the mission of the ESA “has changed and has been misused to try and control land, to block a host of economic activities, jobs, energy, infrastructure and forest management. It also has proliferated costly litigation, which is actually taking taxpayers’ resources away from actual conservation.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the panel, shot back.

“The Endangered Species Act works,” he said.

“Despite years of Republican efforts to pass bills weakening the act and cut funding from agencies that protect and recover imperiled American wildlife, 99 percent of listed species have continued to survive, and 90 percent are on schedule to meet their recovery goals,” Grijalva continued.

“And despite an ongoing misinformation campaign by Republicans and their industry allies, designed to turn the public against ESA, 90 percent of American voters support keeping the law intact.”

The Senate committee saw some similar debates, although limited to the gray wolf issue.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoDems force 'Medicare for All' on Americans but exempt themselves GOP sees fresh opening with Dems’ single payer embrace Overnight Health Care: CBO predicts 15 percent ObamaCare premium hike | Trump calls Sanders single-payer plan ‘curse on the US’ | Republican seeks score of Sanders’s bill MORE (R-Wyo.), the committee chairman, argued that the wolf’s delisting was based on sound science and ought to be upheld.

But at least some of the Democrats weren’t convinced.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said that the Earth is in the midst of a “mass extinction” and Congress shouldn’t get in the way of efforts to mitigate it.

“That’s why the Endangered Species Act, which has save 99 percent of the wildlife under its protection from extinction is such an incredibly important law,” he said. “And it’s why the ESA decisions must be based on science, without interference from Congress.”

The House hearing also offered an early glimpse at the Trump administration’s position on the ESA.

Greg Sheehan, acting director of the FWS, used the hearing as a chance to outline how the Trump administration views enforcement of the ESA and the law’s future.

“The ESA hospital was never intended to keep all patients indefinitely,” Sheehan said.

“There are limited resources to manage the patients, and we need to focus those resources on those that are in the greatest need, not those who are recovered and simply waiting to be released. Success of the ESA will ultimately be defined by the number of patients leaving the hospital, not the number going in.”

His analogy aligns closely with the view of the congressional GOP: Successful species recovery means removing protections because they are no longer necessary.

Sheehan, the former director of Utah’s fish and wildlife agency, said the FWS wants to work with industry, landowners, farmers and others more closely on conservation priorities.

He said the administration generally supports each of the bills the House panel was considering, although he wanted to suggest some small changes.