House panel erupts over Endangered Species Act debate

Democrats claimed a of factors – such as small budgets and political obstruction – often keeps federal regulators from doing their job, bringing on the suits.

“Sue and settle is a catchy phrase,” said Rep. Madeleine BordalloMadeleine Mary BordalloOvernight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks 5 things to know about Guam Guam delegate: Constituents 'very concerned' about North Korea threat MORE (D-Guam), in her opening statement. “However, the fact that the majority is using it as an excuse to shut down the right of people to protect the actions of their government is inappropriate and runs counter to its own Tea Party principles.”

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The practice generally occurs when a regulator fails to issue rules – or in this case, list a species as threatened or endangered – by deadlines set by law. Although some court settlements have ordered the FWS to put a species on the list within a certain time frame, the protections don’t kick in until the animal is officially listed.

Meanwhile, Rep. Chris StewartChristopher (Chris) Douglas StewartMan arrested for shouting into Utah Republican's mic at debate Dem says he'll investigate Trump money laundering allegations if House flips Interior Department should not remove the ovaries of wild horses MORE (R-Utah) said it waged “fish-in-the-barrel litigation” against agencies, wasting precious resources.

The Chamber of Commerce recently released a study showing environmental groups successfully sued the federal government in 2011 and forced them to schedule more than 720 plants and animals for placement on the endangered species list.

“This mega-listing case that people are talking about... those are schedules. They make no substantive decisions,” Patrick Parenteau, a law professor at Vermont Law School and a litigator of several sue-and-settle environmental suits, told the House panel. “Unless those decisions are made, that recovery process cannot even begin. The ESA does not mandate recovery, that’s a flaw in the statute.”

Republicans focused on the sue-and-settle’s impact on local governments and how to initiate the first ESA reform in nearly three decades, pulling its three witnesses from state and tribal agencies.

“Nobody wants to see species go extinct,” said Chairman Doc HastingsRichard (Doc) Norman HastingsCongress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains Boehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform MORE (R-Wa.). “I think the issue that we’re looking at is how best to preserve species.”

Tyler Powell, the deputy secretary of the environment for the State of Oklahoma, said federal regulators are able to mess with state-level efforts to drum up a collaborative recovery effort with the industry to help endangered or threatened animals.

“The state really has no purpose once a listing is done,” he said. “The federal government comes in and takes over all coordination of the species. The state serves as just a general commenter, like any other individual.”

While state and federal wildlife agencies do not coordinate on species listing, biologist Dr. Reed Noss, a professor at University of Central Florida, told lawmakers the “perceived conflict between the federal government and its activities” with other governments is a “red herring,” adding that he was surprised when he heard the topic of the event.

“Everywhere I’ve worked in my 40-year career, I’ve seen generally really good cooperation” between federal and local regulators… literally on a daily basis,” he said, noting his work in Ohio, Oregon, California and Florida on wildlife protection plans.

Critics say the suits force the federal government to prioritize its actions to environmentalists’ will.

The Chamber of Commerce report released last month found the ESA designations stemming from the two lawsuits in 2011 used 75 percent of FWS’ $20.9 million endangered species and wildlife habitat budget that year.

“The suggestion that our courts are there to rubber stamp collusive agreements is insulting to our judiciary,” said Parenteau. “They do not do that.”

Judicial consent decrees between regulators and outside groups must be posted in the Federal Register for public comment before they can become final. Critics of the process argue that, by that time, the damage is already done.

Republicans at the hearing blamed green groups for not actually being willing to sit down to reform and improve the ESA – instead attacking any efforts as an attempt at weakening the law –while Democrats blamed the other side for not giving regulators a seat at the table.

“The fact that neither one of the agencies were invited to appear in the June 2012 hearing or in today’s re-run reflects the continuation of a troubling Republican strategy of fear mongering rather than a fair oversight effort,” said Bordallo.