GOP Senator Proposes More State Control of Endangered Species Act

This July 6, 2011, file photo shows a grizzly bear roaming near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.

This July 6, 2011, file photo shows a grizzly bear roaming near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. AP Photo/Jim Urquhart, File

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Sen. John Barrasso, of Wyoming, unveiled draft legislation Monday to amend one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

A Wyoming senator on Monday proposed allowing for states to take on a bigger role in carrying out the nation's main law for protecting plants and animals that are at risk of extinction.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, the Republican chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, released draft legislation that would modify and reauthorize the Endangered Species Act. The proposal drew a swift rebuke from at least two major conservation groups, who say states are ill-equipped for the responsibilities it would afford them.

But Barrasso said the legislation would increase state and local input and improve transparency, while promoting the recovery of species and helping economies thrive.

“The status quo is not good enough,” he said in a statement.

The senator’s bill is a “discussion draft” and has not yet been formally introduced.

It broadly aligns with recommendations for overhauling the Endangered Species Act that the Western Governors’ Association has worked to develop in recent years. This effort was spearheaded by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican.

Barrasso, who is running for re-election this year, said he worked closely with the western governors in coming up with the bill draft.

The senator’s proposal comes at a time when the Trump administration and other GOP members of Congress are pushing for a range of deregulatory policy changes.

“We had an idea this was coming,” Stephanie Kurose, an endangered species policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said of the draft legislation. “It’s pretty bad.”

“It gives states much greater authority to implement the act, which may sound somewhat neutral at first, but is actually incredibly dangerous,” she added. “In many instances, states do not have the resources, or the political will, to conserve species that are going extinct.”

Bob Dreher, senior vice president of conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife, said that in some cases states can take an interest in blocking species conservation efforts.

“This gives them the power to do it,” he added.

The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 and in the years since has proven to be a lightning rod statute, often pitting commercial interests against supporters of protecting habitat. Projects like highways, dams, and pipelines can require approvals under the law.

A Congressional Research Service report from 2016 notes that the law has “become a surrogate battleground in debates whose primary focus is the allocation of scarce or diminishing lands, waters, or resources.” These debates can often rage hot in western states with significant oil and gas production, logging and agriculture sectors.

Species determined to be at risk under the Endangered Species Act are “listed” as either “endangered,” or “threatened”—the less dire of the two designations. Animals protected by the law include polar bears, the northern spotted owl and some salmon. As of 2016, there were 1,593 species listed that are found in the U.S. or its territories. Of those, 1,156 were plants and the other 437 were animals.

Some critics have charged that the law has been a failure because so many of the species that it is designed to protect remain listed. But backers cite recoveries of species like bald eagles, humpback whales, and Channel Island foxes as evidence the law is working.

Many of the changes Barrasso’s bill proposes have to do with the complex mechanics of how the Endangered Species Act is implemented.

For instance, it would provide willing states an option to take on a leading role in “recovery teams” guiding efforts to revitalize a species.

In these circumstances, federal officials on the team could not exceed the number of state and local officials nominated by governors, and the majority of the team members would have to agree on “appropriately qualified” scientists to join them in their work.

Leaders of the Western Governors’ Association, including Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat and the current chair of the organization, said in a letter to Barrasso, sent in February, that they support the idea of letting states lead recovery teams if they choose to do so.

Elsewhere, the bill specifies that comments submitted by states to the Secretary of the Interior about certain Endangered Species Act issues should be afforded greater weight than comments submitted by individuals, or other entities.

Kurose pointed to language she said would delay court challenges against decisions to “delist” species, a step which removes their endangered or threatened status.

And Dreher said a part of the bill he was troubled by would require recovery goals for species to be set when the species is listed. This is problematic, he said, because it can take years for scientists to define a recovery plan, even after it is clear a plant or animal is at risk.

Dreher also raised questions about a section that would invite states to offer feedback on the performance of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials overseeing the Endangered Species Act.

A spokesperson for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which counts state wildlife, fish and game, and natural resources departments among its members, said the group was reviewing the bill and unable to immediately comment.

David Willms, a policy advisor in Mead’s office, highlighted situations Wyoming has encountered with the law involving gray wolves, grizzly bears and the sage grouse—a bird not listed following an intensive effort by states and others to come up with a plan to protect it.

In the Wyoming region, according to Willms, the recovery objectives for gray wolves were achieved in the early 2000s. But the animal was not finally delisted until last year in the state.

“If you have a recovered species, then there should be a mechanism for being able to delist that species and get them back into state control, as long as you obviously have the reasonable safeguards in place,” he said.

“The ESA is meant to be the place where species that are on the brink of not being with us anymore go to be saved from extinction," Willms added. "It’s not meant to be this place to hold all wildlife."

“There’s not funding to protect all wildlife there.”

Willms pushed back on the idea that Barrasso’s legislation would undermine federal authority in carrying out the law, saying that state actions would still be subject to approval by the Interior Secretary.

“They need help,” Willms said of federal authorities. “This is one way of providing an opportunity for that help, to allow states to step in and take the lead on some of these things.”

But Dreher argues the best way to improve outcomes under the Endangered Species Act is to beef up funding for the federal agencies that oversee the law. “It doesn’t need to be fixed or improved,” he said.

“What it really needs is more resources, and more effort, and more commitment. And that’s the hard part," Dreher added. "It’s a lot easier to write bills like this that talk about who gets to sit where at the table.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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