The endangered margay. Photo: Proyecto Asis/Flickr

The Endangered Species Act is Itself Endangered

, researcher, Center for Science & Democracy | July 16, 2018, 2:30 pm EDT
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In the last two weeks, both the Senate and House have introduced bills proposing damaging amendments to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the leading piece of science-based legislation used to protect and recover biodiversity in the United States. Notably, Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) and long-time critic of the Act, released a discussion draft of the bill he’s been working on entitled, “the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 2018.” The changes to the Act would introduce more routes for political interference under the guise of increased transparency, while relegating science to an afterthought instead of the basis upon which Endangered Species Act decisions are made. An EPW hearing is scheduled for tomorrow morning, where representatives from Wyoming, Colorado, and Virginia will testify before the committee on the proposed changes to the Act.

Here are some of the most concerning pieces of the misguided Barrasso proposal and what you need to know:

Section 109: State feedback regarding United States Fish and Wildlife Service employees

This section requires State agencies working with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on species conservation, management, and recovery or other interactions relating to implementation of the ESA, to provide annual performance feedback to the FWS Director regarding the responsiveness and effectiveness of the individual FWS employee(s) to state and local authorities and various other stakeholders.  This is nothing more than an intimidation tactic that could lead to scientists either being punished for saying things others don’t want to hear, or self-censoring for fear of putting their jobs in jeopardy. It opens the possibility for states hostile to conservation work to give negative feedback unfairly, or to simply bring allegations against employees to undermine their work, with no mechanism to refute or respond on behalf of the federal public servants. Ultimately, this limits the ability of FWS scientists to independently assess the science and make evidence-based recommendations to protect imperiled species, therefore rendering the Endangered Species Act less effective.

Section 301: Policy relating to best scientific and commercial data available

This section gives a green light to the politicization of the science-based determination of whether a species needs protections. It establishes a policy where the Secretary of the Interior, not a scientific expert, could assign greater weight to some data. The goal of this section is to automatically give State, Tribal, and local information greater weight regardless of its scope or quality.  Of course, such data is currently considered, but it should not be given undue consideration. In the event the Secretary finds the State, Tribal, or local data inconsistent with the “best scientific and commercial data available”, he or she will be required to provide a written explanation to the State, Tribal, or local government as well as Congress, and include it in the administrative record. This could discourage the agency from saying that the information is weak because of the political cost of doing so.

Section 302: Transparency of information

In an effort to slow the species listing process, this section would require all raw data be released on the listing. Furthermore, any state or local information used for listing decisions must be approved by said state or local government before publishing.  Again, this would lead to FWS or the states censoring the scientific information used to determine if a species needs protections.  And it would increase the procedural requirements for assembling the scientific information, slowing the process.

This section is a deliberate misinterpretation of the process we have now and will succeed only in making the Endangered Species Act process more difficult. It has been drafted under the false premise that FWS does not already heavily involve or communicate with all stakeholders, including state, local, and tribal governments.  And it implies with no justification that the federal agencies are “hiding something,” which further politicizes the process.

The Endangered Species Act has prevented 99% of species listed under the law from going extinct. The decisions on whether species need protection are based solely on the best available science. Giving greater authority to states that often lack the resources, political will, and national perspective to protect species is, to put it simply, a bad idea. Statutes like the Endangered Species Act are in place to set a national commitment, in this case for saving endangered or threatened wildlife from extinction by focusing first on science. But the changes proposed by Senator Barrasso would politicize the process and add undue procedural burdens, putting wildlife at risk for short-term political gains.

As both the House and Senate try to rush through changes to the Endangered Species Act, call your member of Congress to tell them that a law meant to protect our precious wildlife resources and habitats should not be politicized.  These endangered species and all of our natural resources depend upon stopping species extinctions.

Photo: Proyecto Asis

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