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Senate GOP seeks overhaul of Endangered Species Act

Senate GOP seeks overhaul of Endangered Species Act
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Senate Republicans are embarking on an ambitious effort to overhaul the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Draft legislation due to be released Monday by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoWhy grizzly bear hunting season isn’t happening Trump poised to sign bipartisan water infrastructure bill Dems to force health care vote weeks before Nov. midterms MORE (R-Wyo.) would give new powers and responsibilities for state officials to determine how animals and plants should be protected.

The GOP contends that its goal is not to weaken protections, but to take advantage of the experience of state regulators.

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“When it comes to the Endangered Species Act, the status quo is not good enough,” Barrasso said in a statement to The Hill in advance of the unveiling. “We must do more than just keep listed species on life support — we need to see them recovered. This draft legislation will increase state and local input and improve transparency in the listing process.”

Conservationists, however, say the new bill represents the most significant threat in years to the 44-year-old law, which has been credited with rescuing the bald eagle, gray wolf and grizzly bear from possible extinction.

“It’s a bill which, on a broad basis, rewrites the ESA, with a whole host of consequences — as far as we can tell, almost entirely adverse consequences — for the protection of species,” said Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife.

Dreher and other critics fear the effort would tilt the balance too far toward industries while de-emphasizing the role of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“This bill is all about politics. It’s not about science. It’s especially not about better ways to conserve endangered species,” he continued. “It’s a partisan bill.”

The species act has sometimes restricted energy production or development to protect habitats, an irritant to many landowners and energy interests in the West, where governors are mostly Republican.

Barrasso’s legislation is modeled after efforts that the Western Governors Association, led by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), has undertaken over the last three years to identify potential changes to the ESA. The governors' process was bipartisan, with Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) signing on to the recommendations, though California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) objected to its legislative proposals.

Republicans have long identified the ESA as a problematic law, arguing that it disrespects landowners and states while putting major, unnecessary burdens on industry. They also say it’s overwhelmingly ineffective.

“States, counties, wildlife managers, home builders, construction companies, farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders are all making it clear that the Endangered Species Act is not working today," Barrasso said in a February 2017 hearing that marked the beginning of his reform efforts for the conservation law.

“Of 1,652 species of animals and plants in the U.S. listed as either endangered or threatened since the law was passed in 1973, only 47 species have been delisted due to recovery of the species," he said.

To conservationists, the law isn't perfect, but measuring its effectiveness solely by the number of species taken off the endangered or threatened lists undersells its successes.

"The success of the act is only partly in keeping species alive. It’s more importantly, in the long run, a commitment to recover them and restore them to health in a healthy ecosystem," Dreher said.

ESA's supporters credit it with bringing back from the brink species ranging from the bald eagle to the gray wolf and the grizzly bear.

One of the biggest changes the reform legislation would make is to require that, for each species listed under the ESA, the team overseeing its recovery plan could not have more federal members than state and local representatives, who would be nominated by state governors.

That team would have new mandates, including setting standards to judge the species’s recovery that could not be changed later without unanimous approval.

The team would also have to give “great weight” in its deliberations to scientific data and findings provided by state, local or tribal governments, a standard that other science wouldn’t be subject to.

Before any new species is listed for protection, states would get an opportunity to implement conservation programs to avoid a listing.

The legislation would also prioritize federal resources toward the most at-risk species, and it would prohibit lawsuits against de-listing actions until a species’s recovery monitoring period concludes, a period that usually takes years.

A senior GOP committee aide told The Hill the proposal “focuses on elevating the states’ role in implementation of the act, elevating its partnership to a more equal partnership with the federal government.”

“It focuses on trying to increase transparency of the information and process with regard to implementation of the ESA, in order make sure decisions are as well-informed as they can be, to make sure that resources are utilized as well as they can be,” the aide said.

Republicans on the Environment and Public Works panel say they want a final bill to be bipartisan, but Democrats are skeptical.

“I believe the primary impediment to species recovery is lack of dedicated resources at both the state and federal level. While I’m still reviewing Sen. Barrasso’s proposed legislation, it does not appear to address this serious challenge,” Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Trump administration doubles down on climate skepticism | Suspended EPA health official hits back | Military bases could host coal, gas exports Trump poised to sign bipartisan water infrastructure bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Senators face Wednesday vote on Trump health plans rule | Trump officials plan downtime for ObamaCare website | Lawmakers push for action on reducing maternal deaths MORE (Del.), the panel’s top Democrat, said in a statement.

“Beyond a funding solution, any proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act should be judged on the basis of whether or not they improve conservation outcomes and recover species. That is a hard conversation to have in a Congress that has put forth dozens of proposals to undermine this important law and with an administration that seems intent upon supporting such efforts.”

Dreher said states already play a strong role, and giving them more power would be counterproductive.

“They’ve never played a particularly strong role in conservation of endangered species. Most states, in fact, lack adequate authority to conserve endangered species,” he said.

Barrasso plans to hold a hearing on the draft bill in the coming weeks.