States need to play a larger role in protecting and recovering endangered species, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee said at a hearing Wednesday that looked at federal, state and local efforts to collaborate on wildlife conservation.

“We have to let Wyoming and other states do their job,” said John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who has released draft legislation to rework the Endangered Species Act that would allow states – instead of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – to take the lead in recovering species.

Part of the impetus for the hearing came from a Sept. 24 decision by a federal judge in Montana to reinstate federal protection for the Greater Yellowstone population of the grizzly bear. Chief U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen said FWS had failed to look at how delisting the Yellowstone grizzly would affect other populations of the bear that are not as robust.

Barrasso said the opinion “is not based on the reality on the ground,” where more than 700 grizzlies exist, an increase from 136 grizzlies in 1975, when they were first listed. The judge’s decision means FWS, not Wyoming, now has authority to manage Yellowstone grizzlies.

Practically speaking, the decision means Wyoming cannot conduct a fall hunt for grizzlies, which Barrasso, ranchers and others in his state see as essential to reducing conflicts between livestock or humans with grizzlies. Christensen, however, said that the case “is not about the ethics of hunting, and it is not about solving human- or livestock-grizzly conflicts as a practical or philosophical matter.” Instead, it was simply about whether FWS had violated the ESA when it delisted the Yellowstone grizzly.

“Wyoming citizens are extremely frustrated by this decision and the resulting transfer of management authority back to the federal government,” John Kennedy, deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said in testimony to the committee. “This decision is proof positive that the (ESA) is in need of reform.”

Legislation, however, was not the subject of the hearing. Indeed, with Congress focused mostly on the mid-term elections, it’s virtually certain that ESA bills will not get anywhere in this session. Instead, Barrasso and other senators, such as top EPW Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware, were more interested in hearing about how federal officials can work with their state counterparts.

Mike McCormick, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, outlined efforts in his state and others in the Southeast – to help Mississippi beekeepers and farmers work together to protect honeybees, for example. Other programs he highlighted dealt with reducing the population of black vultures in Kentucky and helping recover the American alligator in Mississippi.

McCormick said a “key ingredient” to the success of the programs “is the positive, working relationships that exist between stakeholder groups and all federal and state agencies in those respective states.” McCormick added “one thing possibly unique about the Southeast region is how all stakeholder groups and government agencies work together toward common goals.”

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In addition, the programs wouldn’t be successful “without the support of land-grant universities, which provide a vital service to the agriculture communities and landowners in their respective states.”

Cindy Dohner, former director of FWS’s Southeast Region, echoed McCormick’s sentiments, pointing out how she had worked closely with the state of Florida on manatee conservation and with states in the Chesapeake region to protect the Delmarva fox squirrel, which was delisted three years ago.

The regional director from 2009 through 2017, Dohner said the ESA already has enough “flexibilities” for states and FWS to work together, but not everyone knows what’s in the law. She said one collaborative effort has, in addition to states and federal agencies, brought in industry and large private landowners to protect species so listings are unnecessary.

Another effort Dohner cited is the Unpaved Roads Program in Arkansas. FWS “is part of a coalition of a dozen organizations and associations led by the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the Association of Arkansas Counties, and The Nature Conservancy to work collaboratively to develop simple best management practices to make it easier for the counties to maintain and repair rural, unpaved roads while reducing costs and improving water quality,” she said.

Ultimately, Dohner said FWS and the states need more resources to protect wildlife. “I know the effectiveness of the ESA would increase if more funding was dedicated” states and the services – FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has responsibility for listed marine species.

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