Republicans are moving full speed ahead with their goal of overhauling the Endangered Species Act (ESA), with legislation that would mark the biggest changes to the landmark law in decades.
GOP lawmakers on a key House committee rammed through several bills this past week that would each lower or remove protections for animals and plants listed as endangered or threatened.
Republicans argue the changes are much needed improvements to the decades-old law. Environmentalists and some Democrats counter that the GOP proposals are an assault on the landmark statute.
Taken as a whole, the bills represent the most significant effort to rewrite the ESA in decades.
The legislation, introduced largely by Republicans in the Congressional Western Caucus, advanced along party lines. The measures could receive individual floor votes or become part of a broader package for consideration in the lame-duck session after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
“We cannot allow the fear of challenging the status quo to prevent us from taking a hard look at the ineffective policies put in place decades ago that have failed to meet the goals of the underlying statute,” said Rep. Mike JohnsonJames (Mike) Michael JohnsonDemocrats outraged after Manchin opposes Biden spending bill Trio of former 'Bachelorette' contestants cut pro-Biden ad GOP beginning to jockey for post-election leadership slots MORE (R-La.), who introduced one of the bills approved by the committee.
Supporters say the measures would make necessary updates to the ESA, which was first enacted in the 1970s and hasn’t been significantly revised since then.
Another common theme in the bills is a desire to give more power to the states and municipalities, with a focus on letting communities decide which species to protect and how to do so.
Critics of the ESA have long argued that animals are easily added to the list and rarely removed, creating regulatory challenges for land developers and the fossil fuel industry.
“More needs to be focused on recovery and the eventual delisting of the species,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopGOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler MORE (R-Utah) at Wednesday’s legislative hearing. “Everything needs to be updated eventually. The ESA is not necessarily being maligned; it’s not working.”
The push on advancing ESA bills -- voted through just a day after first being discussed at Wednesday’s hearing -- comes as the comment period closed this past week over a new Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) rule proposed in July that would change how the agency internally implements ESA.
“When ESA has done its job and a species is no longer at risk for extinction, it should be delisted,” said Greg Sheehan, FWS deputy director, when the rule was introduced.
Opponents argue it would weaken enforcement, and they say it’s another example of misguided fervor in the administration and among GOP lawmakers who are focused on changing the ESA, which has been attributed with saving 99 percent of the species on its list.
“This is political grandstanding as much as anything else. They weren’t interested in hearing the concerns of the environmental community and the administration," said Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation programs of Defenders of Wildlife, the lone environmentalist to testify at the hearing on Wednesday.
“I think it’s just a culmination of circumstances. On the Hill it’s the end of a term that Republicans have control of both houses and they may be afraid of that,” he said. “On the administration side they have two more years in office and this is something on the agenda.”
But the changes spearheaded by the Trump administration have met at least one barrier. A court decision this past week reinstated ESA protections for the Yellowstone Grizzly after the administration delisted it last year.
The District Court for Montana ruled that federal officials didn't consider threats to the species when they lifted threatened species protections on the Yellowstone Grizzly and allowed the animal to be hunted for the first time in decades.
Bishop said the court’s decision was “wrong and clearly was not based on science.”
“The department — hell, it was the Obama administration that proposed it,” he said of the Interior Department’s decision to delist the bear. “They had the science there. That judge is just in a different dimension.”
The ESA will face perhaps one of its biggest challenges on Monday when the Supreme Court is slated to hear oral arguments in a case involving an endangered frog species.
The FWS plan to protect the Dusky Gopher frog, of which only about 75 remain in the wild, is being challenged by Weyerhaeuser Co., one of the largest timber companies in the world. The company is challenging the Obama administration's plan to save the frog by constructing new ponds throughout the Deep South, arguing they can’t protect the habitat where the frog does not yet live.
The mounting challenges to ESA paint a bleak picture for Democrats who have been at the forefront of opposing any weakening of protections.
“Usually the Senate didn't let these things get too far, and we hope that's the case [this time],” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee. “And for eight years we knew we could rely on [President] Obama to not let it get past his desk. Now you have this perfect storm -- that's a concern. And at least in the House, it’s a harbinger of things to come.”
He noted that while he’s optimistic about the midterms and the GOP’s “tenuous” hold on its majority in the House, the period immediately after the elections worries him.
“I think you'll see uglier aspects during the lame duck,” he said.