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GOP scrambles to reform Endangered Species Act before midterms
With the looming threat of Democrats retaking the House in November, several Republicans are focusing their legislative efforts on making long-sought changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
A slew of recently introduced bills, as well as amendments and riders tacked onto must-pass legislation, underscore the push by congressional Republicans to overhaul the more than 40-year-old law while they still have the numbers to do so.
"There were decades of ineffectiveness of the Endangered Species Act and here's the possibility that something might be able to be done now," Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a lobbying group that has long supported efforts to overhaul species protections, said. "If there wasn't a Republican Congress there may be bills but there would be no chance of it going forward."
Recent political ratings indicate Democrats could reclaim control of the House in the midterm elections, and Republicans know that means their window of opportunity could be closing.
"It's all about the midterms," said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "[Republicans] have what might be a unique opportunity to get things through that could never get political support in a more balanced Congress."
"Right now, I think anything that goes up from Congress is likely to get signed by the president," he added.
Earlier this month, a group of House Republicans introduced a package of bills that would overhaul the federal government's process for protecting imperiled plant and animal species. The lawmakers - all members of the Congressional Western Caucus - seek a number of long-standing Republican goals for amending the ESA, such as making it easier to remove species from the endangered or threatened lists and preventing environmental groups from suing to get species protected.
The GOP lawmakers say their legislation aims to modernize the ESA.
"The Endangered Species Act is the most inept program we have in the federal government," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "It's a wonderful goal, but it doesn't have an idea of what its goals actually are or where it's going to be met or when it can actually be successful."
He said the ESA has a paltry success rate, noting that only 3 percent of species listed for protection have been delisted.
A number of other measures, some seen as piecemeal approaches, have been included in bigger bills like the House's Interior Department appropriations bill and the annual defense spending bill.
The House passed its Interior spending bill last week with several amendments designed to overhaul ESA: one would delist any species that is not reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service every five years; another would block funding for the threatened Preble's Meadow jumping mouse and a third would prevent the lesser prairie chicken from being listed on ESA.
As recently as Monday, the House was also facing a showdown over riders that had been tacked onto the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Challenges included contested protections for the sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken, frequently found in Western states, and calls to delist gray wolves across the continental United States.
The conference committee, which is tasked with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the NDAA, announced Monday that it was removing all ESA-related provisions from the bill.
Earlier this month, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, introduced draft legislation that would revise parts of the ESA by increasing state and local input in species listings. The official bill has not been introduced.
Challenges to ESA are largely championed by the fossil fuel industry, ranchers, agriculture groups and builders associations, who all say the law is too far-reaching and ineffective.
"The ESA has not been updated since 1988 - it's showing its age," said Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance. "There is too much process and paperwork and not enough on the ground species conservation."
She said Democratic resistance to changing any parts of the law is politically motivated.
"I know the environmental lobby will demagogue any mild reform to ESA because it's how they raise money," Sgamma said. "It's unfortunate that it is [a party-line issue]. ESA does need to be modernized, but in general the environmental lobby is just too big of constituency for Democrats and that continues to be a hurdle for ESA reform."
Democrats say the bills and riders could cause irreversible harm to species and plants, and they note that the ESA was created as a last barrier to extinction.
"The last few weeks have seen the most coordinated set of attacks on the Endangered Species Act I've faced since I got to Washington," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement to the Hill.
"This is a crucial test of whether endangered species can survive an assault from a hostile administration and Republicans in both chambers of Congress," said Grijalva, who's been a House lawmaker since 2003. "Endangered species advocates got put on notice, and we're going to have to fight back with all we've got."
Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, said he sees the bills less as a coordinated attack and more as a last-ditch effort by GOP lawmakers to throw their hats into the ring before Election Day.
"There's a sense that we are surrounded on all sides, but I don't see that as carefully coordinated," he said. "I think it's just a whole lot of people trying to take advantage of the opportunities ahead. That they do have control of Congress, and on the House side there is a risk that Republicans could lose in the fall."
"A lot of this is congressmen wanting to take something home for a midterm election," he added.