Energy & Environment

Push to change wildlife act sparks lobbying blitz


Action in Congress and the Trump administration to overhaul the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is spurring a lobbying frenzy.

Industries that have long sought to reduce the compliance burden of protecting imperiled animal and plants species are seizing a rare moment with a Republican Congress and White House that are sympathetic to their cause.

{mosads}It’s been more than a dozen years since policymakers have shown such an interest in overhauling the ESA, and industries including agriculture, energy and developers are working hard to get something across the finish line.

“This is an extremely important time, because the opportunity is there to make changes,” said Richard Pombo, a lobbyist and former congressman from California who led the last major effort, in 2005, to comprehensively change the ESA. His measure passed the House, but not the Senate, and he lost reelection 2006, due in part to those efforts.

“It’s probably the best we’ll have in terms of Congress and an administration willing to make changes that in previous years were much more difficult,” he said.

Even if significant reform doesn’t happen this time around, lobbyists are happy that the issue has taken on such a high profile.

“We’re extremely excited,” said one energy industry lobbyist. “The more that this issue of the problems with the Endangered Species Act can be raised, the more progress can be made toward changing the narrative and presenting creative solutions.”

Meanwhile, conservationists who see the GOP efforts as a threat to bedrock environmental protections are also mobilizing, betting that the public will be put-off enough by the proposals that decisionmakers will be pressured to drop them.

“The good news is that the overwhelming majority of Americans support the Endangered Species Act, so our main objective is to educate the American public and mobilize the strong base of national support that exists for protecting the Endangered Species Act,” said Robert Dewey, vice president for government relations at Defenders of Wildlife.

Greens are confident that the Trump administration’s regulatory changes to ESA enforcement won’t pass muster in court.

For both sides in the fight it’s been a momentous summer. In the course of just a few weeks, three efforts to change the nearly 45-year-old law and its implementation were unveiled.

In the Senate, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has draft legislation aimed at changing how species are protected, with an emphasis on giving state officials far more say and power over decisions.

In the House, the Western Caucus, led by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) rolled out a package of nine bills aimed at specific areas like creating a more incentive-based system for private landowners to implement conservation practices, giving priority to data from state and local officials in making species decisions and making it far easier to remove species’ protections.

And in an effort led by Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Fish and Wildlife Service made a handful of proposals to change how it enforces the act, including no longer giving threatened species the same habitat protections as endangered ones, redefining what harms a species could experience in the “foreseeable future” and making it more difficult to protect areas deemed critical habitat.

Lobbyists and other advocates are more optimistic that the Interior Department’s changes could go through than the congressional ones, since the Senate requires a 60-vote majority for most legislation.

Nonetheless, they are making an all-out push to drum up support for the changes to at least build momentum for a future Congress.

The Public Lands Council of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association launched a campaign dubbed Modernize ESA to make a public push for the changes.

Ethan Lane, the council’s executive director, said there’s no bigger issue for farmers and ranchers in the West.

“For my end of our industry, it’s our No. 1 issue. This is a big deal,” said Lane.

Farmers and ranchers have long felt that the restrictions imposed on their land use by the ESA are overly burdensome.

The Modernize ESA campaign argues that reforming the law could make it more effective, citing a statistic that just 3 percent of the species that are listed as endangered are eventually recovered to the point that they can be removed.

“We’ve heard from farmers and ranchers from all walks of life who have faced problems related to ESA and frustration related to ESA,” said Ryan Yates, a congressional relations director at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Yates has done a slew of media interviews since the ESA proposals came out. But he said the most important advocacy is grass-roots.

“At the end of the day, a member of Congress is going to care about what a farmer or rancher in their district thinks more than they’re going to listen to me,” he said.

The industry has been among the most vocal pushing for changes, but it isn’t the only one. The National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition has worked for 27 years to overhaul the law, backed by stakeholders like agriculture, energy, local government, developers and forestry.

Jordan Smith, the group’s executive director, says frustration with the ESA across the country is building momentum for change.

“When we’re able to bring in real stories from our real members, that’s valuable,” he said. “We highlight those for members of Congress, highlight those for people in the administration, so they can understand the need is real.”

Conservationists, though, are focusing on alerting the public to these efforts. They feel that the public and the media are on their side and will see changes to the ESA as destructive.

“What we see as more important is to make sure that the American public writ large understands how bad this is, and I think we’ve actually done a pretty good job of that,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“We’re trying to make sure that we really have the moral authority here to show that this is universally bad for wildlife and plants and would set back endangered species recovery,” he added.

Green groups organized a rally at the Capitol with Democratic lawmakers and supporters to make a public showing of their opposition.

In the end, however, the federal court system might be the most important tool for greens.

With the GOP likely unable to muster 60 Senate votes to pass any major changes in Congress, only the Interior proposals have a significant chance to advance this year. And greens are ready to challenge those in court.

Hartl and others say Interiors changes don’t align with the ESA.

“We’re fairly confident that a lot of this won’t stand up in court,” he said.

Tags John Barrasso Paul Gosar
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