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The Endangered Species Act under Attack: Science, Politics, and the Real Meaning of Transparency

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The cartoon below has never been more appropriate. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is attacked by political interests with some regularity, but the current proposal from the House Natural Resources Committee threatens to halt much of the science-based work that the law has enabled.

An unreasonable proposal: the Endangered Species Transparency and Reasonableness Act

The 2009 winner of UCS' Science Idol cartoon competition perfectly depicted the effect of attacks on the Endangered Species Act--if the science is tampered with, the law doesn't make sense. The ESA is one of the strongest science-based pieces of legislation currently being implemented.

The 2009 winner of UCS’ Science Idol cartoon competition perfectly depicted the effect of attacks on the Endangered Species Act–if the science is tampered with, the law doesn’t make sense. The ESA is one of the strongest science-based pieces of legislation currently being implemented.

To be voted on this week, H.R. 4315, “The Endangered Species Transparency and Reasonableness Act” and its sponsors purport to propose changes that will make the implementation of the ESA more efficient, more transparent, and more based on science; but in reality, the bill would, in many ways, do precisely the opposite.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has spoken out previously about the dangers of this and similar proposals from Congress (see here and here, among others). But I’m especially worried about the potential damage that this bill could do to the 41-year-old law that has been notably successful in using science to protect threatened plants and animals.

Let’s walk through a few highlights of the bill to get a sense of the dangers it poses to the integrity of the Endangered Species Act.

1. Requiring consideration of all state, tribal, and local data could force the use of poor scientific data and jam up the process of rulemaking. The ESA already requires the Secretary of the Interior “to cooperate to the maximum extent practicable with the States” and will make use of the best available science, which can include state, tribal, and local scientific studies when they are peer-reviewed. This proposal, however, would require federal agencies to consider these data sources, even if they are poor quality, not produced by scientists, or are not peer-reviewed. Redefining “best available science” to include potentially unscientific information would be a terrible precedent for the ESA. This will unnecessarily slow the process of ESA decisions and—of concern—could sway listing decisions in the direction of entities with economic interests in keeping species off the endangered list.

2. Requiring the raw data on which a rule is based to be published online in full is unnecessary, costly, and could limit the science used to inform ESA decisions. The limited resources of the federal agencies that implement the ESA would mean that tremendous time would have to be reallocated to database management, a task that doesn’t directly protect species. The move would be largely unnecessary given that agencies already rely on peer-reviewed sources to make species listing decisions. The proposal is the equivalent of me demanding to see all the MRI and CT scan images taken when I broke my arm. My doctor might oblige, give me the hundreds of images, and explain each one, but I think we can all agree that the wait at the doctor’s office is long enough. I’m certain that I’m better off letting the radiologist analyze the images, and just tell me what their sum reveals about my injury.

Lastly and importantly, requiring all data be made publicly available may limit agencies’ ability to use the best available science, since proprietary data, data collected by agencies before its scientists have had a chance to publish, data collected under confidentiality agreements between scientists and landowners, and data involving species’ locations would likely need to be released publicly under the proposal. As a result, proprietary and confidential data may not be shared with the agency and species may be threatened by poachers if their locations are revealed.

3. Claiming the bill’s provisions enhance the degree to which the ESA relies on science fails to acknowledge what the law already does. To understand why this idea is so off base, we need only recall how the law currently works. As I’ve noted before, the Endangered Species Act is one of the strongest science-based federal environmental laws—it already requires that species listings be determined by the “best scientific and commercial data available.” Federal agencies will examine the evidence from a variety of sources and make determinations on species’ listings based on weight of the evidence techniques.

Transparent intentions

Many threatened species, like these Central American squirrel monkeys I saw last week, rely on timely, science-based decisions to enact policies that help protect them from extinction. The Endangered Species Act requires use of the best available scientific information to make decisions about  threatened species, but some are trying to delay and dismantle this process.

Many threatened species, like these Central American squirrel monkeys I saw last week, rely on timely, science-based decisions to enact policies that help protect them from extinction. The Endangered Species Act requires use of the best available scientific information to make decisions about threatened species, but some are trying to delay and dismantle this process.

The bill’s proponents claim their purpose is in the name of transparency around ESA decisions, but what’s most transparent to me is the real intention of the bill—to delay and dismantle Endangered Species Act implementation. Nearly all of the proposed changes in the bill would serve to slow down the process of species rulings, require additional work by implementing agencies, and create unnecessary redundancy. It is difficult to see how the provisions in the bill would serve to better protect threatened species—the purpose of the law.

Last week, I was in the jungle of Costa Rica and was lucky enough to spot a Central American squirrel monkey, a threatened species whose range is now limited to a narrow stretch of Panamanian and Costa Rican Pacific coastline. The species’ population has dwindled from the effects of deforestation, hunting, and capture for the pet trade. For struggling species like this one, time is of essence in identifying threats and taking measures to protect populations from extinction. What we need is laws that improve our ability to protect species, not laws that will inhibit the ability of federal agencies to use science to do so.  H.R. 4315 should be opposed.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , ,

About the author: Gretchen Goldman is a lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. She holds a PhD and MS in environmental engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a BS in atmospheric science from Cornell University. See Gretchen's full bio. Follow her on Twitter at @GretchenTG.

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