Proposed Rewrites to the Endangered Species Act Deny Science, Federal Oversight

WASHINGTON, July 2, 2018 – Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) wants to drastically rewrite the Endangered Species Act (ESA), our nation’s most effective law for protecting wildlife in danger of extinction. In newly proposed legislation, he would shift key authority for conserving threatened and endangered species to individual states, which lack the laws, resources and political will needed to protect imperiled wildlife and their habitat. The ESA already allows for flexibility in protecting endangered wildlife, empowering federal, state, local and tribal officials to work together to prevent extinction.

The Barrasso bill would undercut accountability by exempting federal decisions from judicial review when they fail to meet statutory deadlines for listing species. It would delay court challenges for delisting decisions for five years, leaving wrongly-delisted species exposed to hunting, extractive industries, and other significant threats to their existence.

Statement from Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark:

“This partisan bill is all about politics, at the expense of sound science and the species that depend on it for survival. It is a reckless power grab designed to wrest away authority from scientists and wildlife experts and give it to states that lack the resources — and sometimes the political will — needed to save wildlife from extinction.

The Endangered Species Act is a law of last resort, a necessary backstop when state actions have failed to prevent species from sliding toward extinction. Sen. Barrasso’s proposed legislation has far more to do with pleasing the Western Governors Association and industries that oppose wildlife conservation than helping endangered species. Dismantling our nation’s most effective tool for saving wildlife for political brownie points will mark our generation as the one that witnessed accelerated wildlife extinctions and did nothing to stop them.

This legislation is at dangerous odds with the purposes and policy of the Endangered Species Act passed 45 years ago by an overwhelming majority in Congress. Sen. Barrasso’s unscientific and unrealistic proposal will undermine this essential check and balance to prevent species extinction and protect our natural resources legacy for the future.”

Background:

Sen. John Barrasso has stated his intent to introduce legislation changing the Endangered Species Act in the past, and is one of the ESA’s leading opponents in Congress, along with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT).

This bill prescribes an inappropriate, lopsided role for states for implementing the federal ESA. The bill makes its heavy-handed preference for States clear by requiring federal agencies to “acknowledge and respect the primary authority of State agencies to manage fish and wildlife within their borders,” and to exercise federal authority under the ESA “in conjunction” with States.

The bill undercuts numerous cornerstone principles of the ESA including science based-decisionmaking and agency accountability through judicial review, and it makes the ESA unworkable through the imposition of arbitrary, conflicting and immensely burdensome procedural requirements.

It contains multiple provisions giving States overriding control over the federal program to conserve endangered species. For example, it:

  • Gives States the presumptive lead in determining whether a recovery team is established for a species, in leading recovery teams, and even in implementing recovery plans without federal participation;
  • Imposes arbitrary and dysfunctional requirements that State and local officials nominated by Governors equal or exceed federal officials on recovery teams;
  • Relegates scientists, the heart of any science-based recovery effort, to an afterthought requiring majority approval by the State-dominated team;
  • Requires unanimous agreement among members of recovery teams to change the goals of a recovery plan, giving States a veto over needed flexibility to respond to changed circumstances, new scientific understanding or increased peril facing a species;
  • Requires federal efforts to reintroduce federally endangered or threatened species to comply with State permit requirements, giving States a veto over reintroduction;
  • Mandates that federal agencies give “great weight” to State views in acquiring federal land to conserve species, giving States a virtual veto over land acquisition needed to protect imperiled species’ habitat;
  • Declares State information to be “the best scientific and commercial data available,” exhorts federal officials to give State comments greater weight than comments submitted by any other individual or entity, including scientific experts, and requires the Secretary of the Interior to provide written explanations to affected States whenever federal officials do not act in accordance with State wishes;
  • Invites State officials to grade federal employees in the performance of their duties under the ESA and to reward federal workers whom the States view as appropriately attentive to their interests.
  • Imposes arbitrary and immensely burdensome procedural requirements on already overburdened federal officials trying to conserve endangered species and demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the recovery planning process.

States are simply not equipped to play the dominant role this legislation proposes. States lack the legal authority, the resources, and sometimes the political resolve to implement the ESA.

A 2017 study by the U.C. Irvine School of Law’s Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources entitled “The Limitations of State Laws and Resources for Endangered Species Protections” found that states do not have sufficient laws or resources to adequately protect endangered species. For example:

  • Only 4% of states have authority to promote the recovery of imperiled species;
  • Only 5% of spending on imperiled species is by the states;
  • Only 10% of states have significant habitat safeguards;
  • Only 16% of states require the involvement of state agencies with relevant expertise;
  • Only 36% of states protect all animal and plant species listed under the ESA;
  • Only 54% of states require that listing decisions be based on sound science; and,
  • Stunningly, two states – Wyoming (Sen. Barrasso’s home state) and West Virginia – have no state legislation protecting endangered species.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit Newsroom.Defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.