WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2017 – The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard from a variety of witnesses on Wednesday that the Endangered Species Act, now more than 40 years old, still provides an important function, but agreed it needs to be modernized.
The initial witness, David Freudenthal, governor of Wyoming from 2003-2011 and a U.S. attorney under President Bill Clinton, told lawmakers that the “original groundbreaking legislation” signed into law by Richard Nixon, granted broad authority to the executive branch. But over time, he said in prepared testimony, “the mix of regulations, court decisions, policy guidance and individual agency actions by presidential administrations of differing but still-well intentioned views have created a nearly unworkable system.” Or, as he said from the witness table, “the mechanism, by and large, has sand in the gears.”
He said that it is presently too easy for parties to petition for a species to be listed for protection under the ESA and that, as a result, the system is “flooded.”
“We don’t require enough information from the petitioner,” he said, adding, “The threshold for invoking the power of federal government should be raised.”
Gordon Myers, executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, agreed with Freudenthal and several other witnesses that the states should have a greater role in listing and delisting decisions.
“States have broad expertise, experience and often comprehensive data sets and analyses on listed species because before they were listed, the species were under state management jurisdiction,” he said in written testimony to the committee.
“These data and the states’ interpretations should be more readily utilized by our federal partners throughout ESA processes. States should be afforded the opportunity to participate in all implementation aspects of the ESA from listing decisions, to recovery plan development and conservation recovery efforts on the ground, to providing guidance to private landowners in the use of federal incentive programs that provide them more certainty, to decisions regarding down-listing and delisting of recovered species.”
Meyers, like Freudenthal, also said the law needs to be more specific about goals when a species is listed for protection.
James Holte, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said livestock producers in his state are suffering because the grey wolf remains protected, as the result of litigation, even though its numbers have rebounded to about 900 animals in the state. That’s well above Wisconsin’s Wolf Management Plan recovery goal of 350 animals.
He told the story of a young farm couple who woke up one night to find one of their cows torn apart by wolves, who had been eating the animal while it was still alive. “That was the worst summer of that young farmer’s life,” he said. “Right now, he cannot protect his cows or his family livelihood – because it’s illegal to shoot a wolf in Wisconsin.
The strongest defense of the ESA, which has helped the bald eagle, the gray whale and the American alligator recover from near extinction, came from Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, who said the law does not need major changes but could stand to be more transparent. She also said implementation of the ESA perennially suffers from lack of funding.
“The ESA has worked,” she told the lawmakers. “It’s important to remember that this is a tool of last resort for endangered species. It’s an alarm bell” that sends a signal about the state of the natural world.
Rappaport Clark said in the last Congress there were more than 100 bills or riders aimed at weakening ESA and she accused some lawmakers of using the law as a “lightning rod” for efforts to reduce regulations.
Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2011 through 2016, called for caution in making any changes to the ESA, citing reports of a 50 percent decline in the number of species of all animal types worldwide since 1970.
While not perfect, he said the ESA is the “gold standard” for species preservation. “Your goal should be to make it stronger, faster, better for the 21st century,” adding that, “literally, life depends upon it.”
Ashe said that FWS’s record under the Obama administration proved that the law is working. He said that more species were delisted during his tenure that under all past administration’s combined.
Sen. Jim Inhofe wasn’t impressed. The Oklahoma Republican said there have been 1,652 listings under the ESA, and just 47 delisting, 10 of those were because the species went extinct. Inhofe said Ashe’s FWS was responsible for 16 delistings, adding, “That’s one out of 100.”
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