Don’t Like the Endangered Species Act? Try to Weaken It by Gutting the Science

July 24, 2013 | 3:15 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The Endangered Species Act has one of the strongest scientific foundations of any environmental law in the United States. And with some predictability, some members of Congress try to tear down that foundation. This year is no different.

The Endangered Species Act is successful: 98 percent of species that have been listed as endangered or threatened survive today. And the law has helped the recovery of many of our nation’s iconic species, from bald eagles to grizzly bears.

Why? In part, because decisions on which species warrant protection are based solely on the best available scientific information. After a species is put on the endangered species list, other concerns (such as agriculture, hunting, recreation, or development) rightfully inform decisions about how to best enable a species’ recovery.

The current attacks

Yesterday, a House subcommittee passed an appropriations bill with several provisions that would weaken the Endangered Species Act by diluting the science that informs it (in addition to a slew of other anti-environmental provisions). All were introduced by Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID). Among the highlights:

This week, Representative Mike Simpson put forward several riders to an appropriations bill that would weaken the scientific foundation of the Endangered Species Act. Photo: US Congress

This week, Representative Mike Simpson put forward several riders to an appropriations bill that would weaken the scientific foundation of the Endangered Species Act. Photo: US Congress

The bill would prohibit researching endangered species on private property. Scientists need a full understanding of the range of a particular species to make accurate determinations regarding if and where it deserves protection.

The bill would prevent any new limits on the use of or access to federal land for fishing or hunting. The federal government owns and manages 650 million acres of land, and many imperiled species live on this land. Biologists who determined that hunting or fishing restrictions would help a species recover would be out of luck.

The bill would prohibit the listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The greater sage grouse has long been under political attacks. But determining which species merit protection is a scientific question, not a political one.

Other parts of the legislation would make implementation of the Endangered Species Act more difficult. For example, the bill would exempt grazing permits from environmental review, and require any land acquisition to receive congressional approval.

A history of political interference

Since I started at UCS nearly a decade ago, we’ve worked with scientists to educate members of Congress and their staff about the importance of keeping the Endangered Species Act grounded in science. While there have been many small skirmishes, a couple of bigger fights rise to the top of my mind.

Some members of Congress want to gut the Endangered Species Act entirely. In 2005, Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA) pushed legislation through the House of Representatives that would have prohibited scientists from considering an animal’s historical range, removed modeling as a tool for scientific analysis, and given political appointees the ability to set criteria for scientific data.

In response, more than five thousand scientists wrote a letter to the Senate outlining why the Endangered Species Act needs science to be successful, and urging the Senate to stop any legislation that would weaken it.  Emboldened, Former Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee prevented the Senate companion to Representative Pombo’s legislation from moving through his committee, effectively killing it.

The gray wolf has a long history of being caught up in politics--with actions by interests on all sides that undermine the use of science in the Endangered Species Act.

The gray wolf has a long history of being caught up in politics. Actions by interests with diverse viewpoints on wolf conservation have undermined the use of science in the Endangered Species Act. Photo: USFWS

Other members of Congress have beefs with individual species (former California Democratic Representative Joe Baca has gone after many). The gray wolf is one species that has been caught in Congress’s crosshairs for years. In February 2011, legislation was introduced that would have removed the wolf from the endangered list. It was the first time Congress had tried to “de-list” a particular species.

Knowing this would set a bad precedent, UCS helped organize a letter to the Senate from nearly 1,300 experts with biological expertise. “Objective scientific information and methods should be used in listing or delisting species, subspecies, and distinct population segments as endangered or threatened,” they wrote.

But then, a group of environmental organizations—who in this case were also willing to set the science aside—cut a deal with the Interior Department to de-list the wolf in Idaho and Montana, the states where elected officials were raising the biggest stink. A judge threw the agreement out, and eventually, the budget rider passed.

Last month, the FWS formally proposed de-listing the wolf entirely in the continental U.S. Some scientists and scientific organizations do not believe the proposal is supported by the best available science. Recently, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a lawsuit over the failure of the FWS to produce documents related to the wolf de-listing under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Endangered Species Act will continue to be subject to attacks from those who stand to benefit from its demise. It’s incumbent upon the scientific community to push back.