Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that will make some much needed changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) if it makes it through the Senate, but some lawmakers say it’s just the beginning, and more reform is needed.
The legislation, H.R. 4315, the Endangered Species Transparency and Reasonableness Act, passed by a vote of 233 to 190, combines four bills previously marked up by the House Natural Resources Committee, and will be beneficial to updating and improving the Endangered Species Act of 1973. “The ESA, while designed to protect species from endangerment of extinction, has proven to be ineffective and immensely damaging to our members’ ability to stay in business,” said Brice Lee, Public Lands Council (PLC) President and Colorado rancher. “During the nearly 40 years since the ESA was passed and over 25 years since Congress last reauthorized the law, our industry has come to recognize the Act as greatly flawed and outdated. Less than 2 percent of species placed on the endangered species list have ever been deemed recovered.” H.R. 4315 will require data used by federal agencies for ESA listing and proposed listing decisions to be made publicly available and accessible. The bill also requires the interior secretary to report and comprehensively track all litigation costs associated with the Act. Furthermore, the bill caps hourly fees paid to attorneys that prevail in cases filed under ESA, consistent with current law. “Environmental activist groups have a habit of suing the federal government to force the listing of a species, then suing to prevent species delisting, even after recovery goals have been met,” said Bob McCan, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president. “Their legal expenses are often reimbursed by the American taxpayer. By comprehensively tracking all costs associated with the ESA and capping the attorney fees, we can limit the incentive those groups have to file suit and keep the federal agencies accountable for the taxpayer dollars being spent.” Finally, the federal government will be required to disclose to affected states all data used in the ESA decision-making process. It also ensures that “best available scientific and commercial data” used by the federal government will include data provided by affected states, tribes, and local governments.
“The ESA has not been reauthorized since 1988, and is in great need of modernization,” said Mc- Can. “While not a complete fix, this piece of legislation takes some of the necessary steps to repairing this broken law.”
Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) was a co-sponsor of this important bill and supported it when it passed the House.
“Too often, listing decisions under the ESA are driven by litigation and made behind closed doors with little public input. Oregonians deserve more transparency and the ability to better participate in the decision-making process that so greatly affects their livelihood. This common sense bill would reform the ESA to bring much-needed transparency to how management decisions are made and implemented,” Walden said.
ESA has already had an impact throughout a number of rural communities, including Oregon. Northern spotted owl critical habitat designations have led to federal timber harvests dropping by more than 90 percent in the last 30 years, according to Walden.
Facing an arbitrary courtordered deadline of September 2015, rural communities across eastern Oregon are rushing to prevent the listing of the Greater sage-grouse under the ESA in hopes of avoiding the detrimental economic impacts that have followed listings elsewhere in the West.
Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) took the floor last Tuesday to share the benefits of the reform including the lack of recovery numbers and the growing list of lawsuits. According to Hastings, in the past seven years, approximately 500 ESA lawsuits have been filed against government agencies.
In addition, Hastings applauded the transparency portion. “The American people should be able to access such data before federal listing or de-listing decisions are final.”
Hastings was involved in the ESA Congressional Working Group that reviewed hundreds of comments from the public, and testimony from nearly 70 witnesses.
While the group concluded that there is still strong support for ESA, it is in need of some changes.
“Since passage of the law over 40 years ago, ESA policies have been increasingly driven by litigation, which has diverted attention and precious resources away from species recovery. Our legislation starts the reform process in part by increasing litigation transparency for public and congressional review. The stakes for species and taxpayers are too high for there not to be a full and accurate accounting of how many tax dollars are funding courtroom battles instead of species recovery. This is an outdated model, especially when compared to the effective boots-on-the-ground conservation efforts that we see every day in Wyoming and elsewhere at the state and local level,” said Rep. Cynthia Lummis, (R-WY) — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor