WASHINGTON — As planet Earth stares down the barrel of a sixth mass extinction event, conservative lawmakers in Washington have taken aim not at climate change or habitat loss, but at one of the most important laws to protect imperiled species and combat the biodiversity crisis: the Endangered Species Act.
This Republican-led initiative will be on full display Wednesday when the House Committee on Natural Resources takes up five bills targeting portions of the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law to safeguard threatened species and the habitat critical to their survival, and to prevent extinctions. Among other things, the bills would require that federal agencies consider the economic effects before granting protection for a species, eliminate ESA protections for nonnative species and mandate that agencies provide affected states all the data they plan to use in determining whether to list a species as endangered or threatened.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive officer of the conservation nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife and a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the “hodgepodge” of bills is “aimed at undermining, circumventing or eliminating” protections under the 43-year-old law.
“None of it is based in science. None of it is going to make the Endangered Species Act work more efficiently or effectively,” she told HuffPost in an interview Tuesday. “And absolutely none of what they are doing will accelerate species recovery or slow down species extinction. So it’s really kind of selfish and self-serving.”
“Species are in the way of their special interests,” Clark added.
The ESA was enacted with strong bipartisan support and has an impressive record of bringing species like the bald eagle and the humpback whale back from the brink of extinction. Today it provides protections for more than 1,600 plants and animals. But Republicans have been pursuing efforts to undermine the law for years, and now with President Donald Trump in the White House and the GOP in control of both chambers of Congress, the threat seems very real for ESA advocates.
In December, shortly after Trump’s surprise victory, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, told E&E News that it may be time for lawmakers to “start over again” and “repeal it and replace it.”
“It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land,” Bishop told The Associated Press in January. “We’ve missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has been hijacked.”
Less than a month after Trump took office, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing called “Oversight: Modernization of the Endangered Species Act.” In his opening remarks, committee chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — who has sponsored several bills targeting the ESA — said the law “isn’t working today” and “we should all be concerned.”
In an effort to make his point, Barrasso noted that of the 1,652 U.S. species listed as either threatened or endangered at that time, only 47 ― or 2.8 percent ― have been delisted because of their recovery. “As a doctor, if I admit 100 patients to the hospital and only three recover enough under my treatment to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license,” he said.
But Barrasso’s argument ignores not only the law’s success in preventing 99 percent of listed species from going extinct but also the dire situation facing flora and fauna around the globe. (Over the last few centuries, humans have sped up the extinction rate roughly 1,000 times, according to a 2005 assessment.)
At that hearing, former Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel Ashe, now the president and chief executive of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, called the ESA “the world’s gold standard” and said Congress’s goal “should be to make it stronger, faster and better for the 21st century, because life literally depends upon it.”
Lawmakers introduced at least 130 separate bills and amendments in the last session of Congress to try to weaken the law ― the vast majority from Republicans, according to a list compiled by Defenders of Wildlife. So far this year, there are at least 29 measures the nonprofit has identified as anti-ESA, nearly all of them from Republicans.
One of the bills that will be discussed Wednesday would amend the Endangered Species Act to require that the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the two agencies that administer the law, review the economic effects of listing a species before making a determination about whether it should receive protection. The measure was introduced by Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas).
A bill introduced by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) would remove nonnative species from protection under the ESA. In a hearing memo, the committee’s Republican majority says the move is about better conserving nonnative species by promoting captive breeding and making it easier to move live animals around the country.
A third proposal, introduced by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), would require that, before determining whether a species will be listed under the ESA, the appropriate agency provide all data used in its analysis to the affected states. It would also mandate that, as part of its analysis, the agencies use data submitted by state, tribal or county governments. While its Republican backers say the bill is about ensuring “decisional transparency,” critics argue it could weaken the listing process by opening the door to “contradictory, out-of-date or fraudulent” data.
The Center for Biological Diversity said in a news release Tuesday that the proposals “are likely the foundation of [Bishop’s] effort to begin dismantling” the environmental law. “If these dangerous bills are enacted, hundreds of plants and animals will be put on a fast track to extinction,” said Brett Hartl, the conservation nonprofit’s government affairs director.
Meanwhile, Trump and his team have left conservationists feeling discomfited about the future of species protections in the U.S. The president’s 2018 budget request calls for slashing the Interior Department’s funding by $1.6 billion, down to $11.7 billion. That includes a $220 million, or 14.5 percent, cut to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
For Hartl, the budget was proof that Trump was “no different than the most extreme members of the Republican Party who have waged war on endangered species and environmental protection for years,” he said in May.
Among the ESA’s newest additions is the rusty patched bumble bee, one of America’s most important pollinators whose numbers have plummeted as a result of habitat loss, disease, pesticide use and climate change. The species landed on the ESA list in March but not before a delay by the Trump administration and a legal challenge filed against the administration by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Since becoming Trump’s interior secretary in March, Ryan Zinke — who had a poor track record on threatened species and a paltry 4 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters as a Montana congressman — has prioritized energy development and infrastructure over endangered species and habitat restoration. The White House has also nominated former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, whom The Texas Observer described as a “fierce critic” of the ESA and who once compared species listings to “incoming Scud missiles” that threatened Texas’ economy, to serve as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget in the Department of the Interior.
In June, Zinke took aim at protections for the greater sage grouse, launching a review of a conservation plan implemented by the Obama administration that kept the ground-dwelling game bird with an elaborate mating display off the endangered species list. The review, Zinke said, would provide states with “greater flexibility” to pursue opportunities for energy development and job growth.
Clark told HuffPost the ESA is faced with a “perfect storm”: a “seemingly hostile” administration, an “openly hostile” Congress and a slew of environmental threats.
“We’re at a pretty dangerous time for all of our environmental laws, but the Endangered Species Act in particular,” she said.
Clark added that the ESA is an “effective, efficient, flexible law that is being starved to death.” And if the Republicans truly want it to work the way it is supposed to, she said, they should fund it rather than try to “eviscerate” it, she said.
But in an interview with E&E News on Tuesday, Bishop made it clear that he thinks the ESA needs an overhaul.
“It’s terribly flawed,” Bishop said.
For more about Wednesday’s hearing and the bills being considered, click here.