WASHINGTON, May 13, 2015 – Senate Republicans are preparing to move a series of bills that would make it harder for the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to enforce the Endangered Species Act (ESA) while giving states and local governments a much bigger role in determining protections. The chairman of the Senate and Environment and Public Works Committee, Jim Inhofe, says he plans soon to mark up at least some of the eight GOP-sponsored endangered species bills.
The measures include a pair of bills (S 292 and S 736) that would require FWS to make public all the data used in listing decisions. The second bill also would require the agency to deem data submitted by state and local agencies to be among the “best available” information the agency must consider in making determinations.
Other bills would block a listing of the northern long-eared bat (S 655) and allow Western states to implement their own conservation measures for the greater sage grouse in lieu of federal management plans (S 1036).
Inhofe, R-Okla., said at a May 6 hearing that FWS “has been too focused on listing more species instead of focusing on the goal of the act, to recover species.” He said the ESA had become an “ATM machine” for environmental groups whose 2011 settlements with the administration had forced FWS to make listing decisions on a wide variety of species.
Inhofe later told reporters that he hadn’t decided which bills to act on but that the transparency issue “is a big one,” an apparent reference to the bill mandating public disclosure of data.
But it will be difficult for many of the bills to get the support necessary to overcome a presidential veto. The committee’s top Democrat, Barbara Boxer of California, calls the measures a “backdoor” attempt to repeal the ESA. “We will have hand-to-hand combat on the floor if these bills are voted out of this committee,” she told Inhofe.
The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Dan Ashe, said his agency already is underfunded and has a backlog of 200 species for which he it hasn’t developed recovery plans. The legislation would “add a lot of process and new requirements that would be new causes of legal action that would make it more difficult to conserve species.”
He said the agency is taking some steps that will benefit states and landowners. One proposal the agency is finalizing would give credit to early conservation actions that states have taken for an at-risk species.
But states and local governments want more say than the administration is prepared to give them in conservation plans and listing decisions. “When those decisions are made we don’t have a seat at the table,” said Gordon Cruickshank, a county commissioner in Idaho. “We’re part of the government that’s closest to the people.”
The bills aimed at overhauling the ESA process will be particularly difficult for Republicans to enact, given Boxer’s opposition and the lack of Democratic support.
Blocking the listings of individual species, including the sage grouse and northern long-eared bat, is easier to accomplish. That can be done on a year-to-year basis through riders on appropriations bills. FWS already is barred from listing the sage grouse during fiscal 2015. The provision would have to be extended for fiscal 2016, which starts Oct. 1.
For more news, go to www.agri-pulse.com.