Energy & Environment

Dems slam proposed changes to Endangered Species Act

Senate Democrats on Tuesday criticized multiple GOP-backed changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), saying they threaten the conservation program's successes.

The debate came at a hearing examining Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso's (R-Wyo.) major proposal to overhaul the law.

Barrasso's bill aims to give states a bigger role in species recovery, mostly through "recovery teams" - at least half of whose members would represent state and local interests - with power to oversee an imperiled plant or animal's recovery.

"The discussion draft elevates the role of states in partnering with the federal government in implementing the Endangered Species Act. It affords states the opportunity to lead wildlife conservation efforts, including through the establishment of recovery teams for listed species in development and implementing recovery plans," Barrasso said at the committee's hearing on the legislation.

"It provides for increased regulatory certainty, so stakeholders are incentivized to enter into voluntary conservation recovery activities," he said. "It increases transparency. It codifies a system for prioritizing species listing petitions, so limited resources flow to the species most in need."

The bill is modeled on an ongoing process by the Western Governors' Association to recommend changes to the law, a process that has been endorsed by numerous GOP governors and one Democrat - Hawaii Gov. David Ige.

While Democrats on the Environment Committee recognized that the ESA might warrant some changes and expressed an openness to contributing to the process, they said Barrasso's bill was unacceptable.

"The legislation proposes some changes to the act that cause, for me, some real concerns," Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the panel's top Democrat, said.

He pointed specifically to changes in the way the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) would have to consider scientific findings in its decisions.

"This change could actually prevent the best available science from guiding species management, especially in an administration that consistently denies and undermines science," he said.

Carper also criticized a provision limiting the ability of outside groups to sue the FWS when species are taken off the endangered or threatened species lists, which he characterized as limiting "the public's opportunity to challenge delisting decisions that may not be supported by the best available science, or otherwise not fully compliant with the law."

Carper, and many other Democrats, complained that the main change needed to better conserve species is additional funding, which Barrasso's bill would not provide.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said the world is in a "global extinction crisis," and any ESA changes need to recognize that.

"I believe that we are considering a bill that in its total conception is taking us in the wrong direction," he said.

"I just believe that this bill would move us away from the best available science and would delay and restrict, ultimately, judicial review."

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) faulted a provision in which FWS would solicit feedback annually from state governors regarding individual FWS employees.

"There are going to be honest disagreements sometimes between Fish and Wildlife employees and state employees, and I'm not sure, why would we want to give people that cudgel over certain federal employees who are doing their job, some of whom, you know, have gotten death threats for their work on endangered species," Van Hollen said to Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), who was at the hearing to testify in support of the bill.

Many of the committee's Republicans, however, said the legislation goes in the right direction.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said it's right to give states a bigger role in conservation.

"A lot of times, people just have this knee-jerk reaction that because you're delegating more authority to the states, you're somehow weakening the law. I don't necessarily believe that's true. I think, in this case, it's a good idea," she said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) wanted to go further and give states sole authority over species that are only within their borders, something he said is common in Alaska.

"I know there are issues across boundaries, where species are moving across boundaries," he said, adding that federal involvement is appropriate there.

"What if you happen to be in a state that's the size of a continent, in some ways, and there's no cross-boundary issue, like my state," he asked.

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