Republicans and Democrats clashed over legislation that would give states a larger role in recovering endangered species at a hearing before the Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday.

The subject of the hearing was a bill introduced by EPW Chairman and Wyoming Republican John Barrasso that would delay lawsuits challenging the Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting of a species. It is backed by a long list of agricultural groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cotton Council and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

The bill “would delay the ability of a federal court to overturn a delisting rule” during a five-year monitoring period following delisting, Barrasso said.

The bill “does not eliminate anyone’s right to challenge a delisting rule in federal court,” he said. “It only delays such a lawsuit so states have an opportunity to prove that they can successfully manage the recovered species.”

But Ranking Member and Delaware Democrat Tom Carper criticized the bill for shifting “responsibilities for recovery and other species management decisions to states — without providing additional funding for states to fulfill those expanded roles.”

He said the “most concerning” part of the bill was what he called the “sweeping judicial review prohibition that limits the public’s opportunity to challenge delisting decisions that may not be supported by the best available science or, otherwise, may not be fully compliant with the law.” 

Testifying were Wyoming’s Republican governor, Mark Gordon, Florida cattle rancher Aliese “Liesa” Priddy, and Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.

Gordon focused, as Barrasso did in his opening remarks, on repeated attempts by the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that have been stymied by court decisions.

“The largest barrier to returning the management of fully recovered species to the states and tribes is litigation,” Gordon said. “These suits, and the associated investment of money, time and energy, detract from species recovery and conservation and divert important resources away from species that truly need help.”

Priddy also backed the legislation, mentioning in particular a provision that would allow states to take the lead on recovery planning for threatened or endangered species.

“States are uniquely positioned to coordinate resources” from stakeholders involved in the recovery process, Priddy said.

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Priddy, representing the Florida Cattlemen's Association and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, also said state resources for species recovery often exceed those available to the states, but Clark said states, like the federal government, are woefully underfunded when it comes to endangered species. She also said the ESA already has enough administrative flexibility to allow states to play a larger role.

Clark also said “the barring of judicial review for a decision to delist is hugely troublesome because it completely eliminates the ability to hold the government accountable for decisions they make.”

With few legislative days left, the legislation appears to be going nowhere in the current Congress. Barrasso seemed to acknowledge as much, saying at the conclusion of his opening remarks that he hopes “to continue to work to find a viable pathway for this legislation as we move into the 117th Congress.”

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