Any changes to current Endangered Species Act will weaken its purpose
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The battle over the Endangered Species Act has reached a fever pitch in Congress. The Senate Environment & Public Works Committee is expected to act on legislation to rewrite this law by the August recess, setting the stage for floor action this fall.

Given the current political context, the overwhelming likelihood is that any enacted legislation would significantly weaken or eviscerate the nation’s most effective law for protecting endangered and threatened wildlife and their habitat. Reasonable Senators who value this important law must not let that happen.


The Endangered Species Act has been enormously successful at its primary mission of averting extinction: 99 percent of listed species remain in existence today. The law has proven to be both enduring and flexible, and the federal agencies charged with its implementation have continuously improved its implementation. It is also an extremely popular law, with 90 percent of American voters supporting the Endangered Species Act.


Despite the ESA’s long track record of success, the Environment Committee has already held two hearings on “modernizing” this quintessential conservation law since January. Over the years, modernization has become legislative code for disingenuous efforts to weaken ESA protections, ultimately likely leading to more extinctions. The most recent hearing focused on changing the law, ostensibly to give states more authority for protecting endangered species. But the law already allows, and in fact encouragers, federal, state, local and tribal officials to work together to prevent extinction.

So what’s really going on here?

The ESA is the conservation law of last resort that is triggered only after state or other efforts to conserve habitat and protect species have fallen short. Species are added to the list only when they’ve declined to the point of being in danger of extinction. After species are listed, the ESA provides significant and appropriate opportunities for input and valuable coordination with non-federal partners. States already have numerous important opportunities to participate in decision making under the ESA. The New England cottontail is a recent example of states working effectively with the USFWS to avert the need to list the rabbit, which had been a candidate for protection under the ESA.

The services's proven record of success in preventing extinction and partnership with the states demonstrates that there is no reason to shift federal authority to the states. Such a change to the law could be disastrous for species, considering that the majority of states lack the legal authority and resources to fill the conservation role played by the services. Both the states and the services could benefit from more resources to help species before they become imperiled and to recover and manage listed species. Increased funding for the ESA could help improve its implementation and provide more certainty for regulated entities.

Greater state authority is likely to be an insidious building block of the "modernization" bill Environment Committee chair Senator John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSenate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees Overnight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans Dems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing MORE introduces as the basis for action by his Committee. The bill will serve as the legislative equivalent of a Trojan Horse to gut the ESA.

Apart from whatever is passed out of committee, the legislation would become a vehicle for a long list of devastating floor amendments to further weaken the ESA. In the past two years, Congress has attacked the ESA through nearly 150 bills, amendments and riders, almost all sponsored by Republicans. One of the most recent legislative proposals (S.935/H.R.2134) would immediately delist every single threatened and endangered species and withhold protections until Congress passes a joint resolution approving a new list. Just last year, Congress loaded up the Interior Appropriations bill with numerous riders to block or remove species protections for species ranging from wolves to sage grouse. Scientists — not Congress — should be making decisions about which species need protection.

Once Senator Barrasso's bill is loaded up with damaging amendments on the Senate floor, it moves on to an even worse fate in the House. Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopOvernight Energy: House votes to reopen Interior, EPA | Dems question EPA over Wheeler confirmation prep | Virginia Dem backs Green New Deal Grijalva backs Bishop over current acting Interior Secretary Dems question legality of park fees during shutdown MORE, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, has already said publicly that “I’m not sure if there’s a way of actually reforming the Endangered Species Act,” and that he would like to “repeal it and replace it.” Senators must not be fooled into helping push Senator Barrasso's ESA Trojan Horse. Nothing less than the extinction of the nation’s imperiled plants and wildlife is at stake.

Jamie Rappaport Clark is the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. She was the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997 to 2001.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.