WASHINGTON, May 10, 2017 - States need to have a larger role in implementing the Endangered Species Act, three heads of state wildlife agencies told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at a hearing today.

“State fish and wildlife directors generally believe the ESA is not performing as it should and is not sufficiently leveraging state agency expertise and cooperation,” Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, told the EPW committee.

He was joined by Larry Voyles, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and a former AFWA president, and Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

EPW Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., kicked off the hearing, the second on the ESA for the committee in this session of Congress, by saying states are well equipped to take on more responsibility under the landmark 1973 law, administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Combined, our nation’s 50 state fish and wildlife agencies are a formidable wildlife conservation machine,” Barrasso said, citing statistics showing that the state agencies employ 11,000 wildlife biologists, a figure that Voyles said was nearly equal to the entire workforce of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But ranking minority member Tom Carper, D-Del., said his understanding is that states spend about one quarter of what FWS invests to protect listed and candidate species. “If we include all federal agency spending, the collective state investment is about 4 percent,” he said. “Granted, this likely means we need to invest more in our states. But it also means that states have some soul-searching to do.”

The purpose of the hearing was to gather states’ input so EPW can work on crafting ESA legislation, EPW spokesperson Mike Danylak said. The hearing was about “continuing the conversation” on the ESA “and then working with the Democrats on the committee to form a bipartisan consensus on what strengthening and modernizing the ESA looks like,” Danylak said.

The law has not been amended since 1988, and enactment of ESA legislation is likely a tall order in today’s polarized Congress. Bills have been introduced to rewrite parts of the law in both the House and Senate, but they have garnered few cosponsors.

The state wildlife agency directors told EPW that many states are positioned to take on larger roles in protecting federally listed species, but they need more resources to do so.

Florida’s Wiley told the committee that states have developed wildlife action plans that “have comprehensively identified species of greatest conservation need and key actions needed to conserve them.”

And Rhode Island’s Coit said that “the best investment we can make to save species and reduce the need for regulatory restrictions” under the ESA is to “invest significantly” in those plans, which currently receive funding from a $62 million State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program.

But her state receives only $23,000 each year in ESA recovery funding, “which covers just a fraction of the obligations and initiatives we carry out relating to conservation of candidate, threatened and endangered species.”

Wiley said states have had to use their resources creatively “because of the dearth of federal funding” for species recovery efforts. While grateful for funding from the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program, he said, “we are only able to scratch the surface with this level of support and with the growing list of petitions and possible listings, it is a growing federal and fiscal burden on state agencies.”

Nevertheless, states are making progress on the conservation front, Voyles said, citing as an example the effort to preserve habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken, a grassland bird found in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Voyles said a range-wide plan administered by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in partnership with the five states has succeeded in conserving more than 130,000 acres on 16 sites in private lands. Three of the sites, totaling about 33,000 acres, “are permanently conserved through perpetual conservation easements or fee title ownership,” Voyles said. “The other 13 sites were 10‐year contracts with private landowners, covering 100,650 acres across the range.”

Coit and Wiley both highlighted a multiyear effort by FWS and state agencies in New England to conserve habitat for the New England cottontail, which resulted in a 2015 announcement that the rabbit would not be listed under the ESA.

Yet states are often outside the room when the big decisions are made. “The way the ESA is constructed and interpreted, state agencies can be involved in key decisions in the listing process only at the discretion of the federal agencies,” Wiley said. “Even when we are invited to be more involved in the decision-making process, there is a point where the federal curtain closes, and we are left outside as decisions are finalized and approved.”

Wiley and Voyles both attached to their testimony a list of principles adopted by AFWA last year to improve ESA implementation, including allowing states to manage threatened species, providing more funding for ESA implementation and providing certainty and incentives for private landowners.


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