Environmentalists Split on GOP Efforts to Alter Endangered Species Act

Democrats and environmentalists are divided over whether it’s worth working with Republicans on changes to the Endangered Species Act, a law supporters say is underfunded and critics say is ineffective and bureaucratic.

Republicans indicated early this year they want changes to the law. They point to the fact that only a small portion of endangered or threatened species has been de-listed due to the act, while it has limited development of lands with protected species.

At two hearings this year, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has said the 1973 law should be revised to encourage more cooperation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state environmental regulators.

Some supporters of the law say that’s just an excuse to undercut federal enforcement of the law, which underwent changes in 1988 when it was renewed. But others are open to modest reforms, as long as the Fish and Wildlife Service is given proper funding.

Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said he has “heard different messages from the environmental community” and that he may support a bill that makes changes to the Endangered Species Act.

“The question is, what is improvement and what is not?” Carper said in a hallway interview Thursday. “We probably won’t all agree on that. But some of our friends in the environmental community have said to me this law can be improved.”

At a Wednesday hearing on the law, environmental officials from Arizona, Florida and Rhode Island appeared willing to give state government officials a more prominent role in the process of listing and protecting endangered and threatened species. But they diverged on whether states were in a strong financial position to take on more work without federal help.

Arizona Game and Fish Department Director Larry Voyles said his state “has grown exponentially in our ability to deal with ESA-listed species as well as species at risk,” while Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit said her state is “very resource-constrained.”

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said he is open to discussing increased collaboration between states and the federal government as long as it includes more funding for species that haven’t gotten much attention.

An excise tax on firearms and other hunting equipment helped fund state agency programs that protect species hunted by sportsmen. But species that aren’t considered “game” don’t have a significant source of funding for preservation.

Coit said at least 80 percent of Rhode Island’s funds for protecting species are restricted to game species. Non-game species that the state wants to protect include the humpback whale and timber rattlesnake.

A bill with more funding for non-game species that has “state expertise integrated into the process” could get bipartisan support, O’Mara said in a phone interview Wednesday. If there’s genuine bipartisan negotiation, there could be a deal “in the next few years,” O’Mara said.

It’s not ideal, O’Mara said, for environmentalists to put their faith in a Republican-led Congress and White House, but the rapid rate of extinction requires prompt action. A study published in Science Advances in June 2015 said the rate of species extinction has skyrocketed in the last 200 years, suggesting the sixth period of “mass extinction” in world history is “already under way.”

“From my point of view, this is a crisis, and I don’t think we can take off the next three or four years,” O’Mara said.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, is not as open to negotiation as O’Mara or Carper. He said House Republicans “do not have the best interests of the Act, species recovery or the American people at heart.”

“I certainly wish those in the Senate and elsewhere well, but to House Republicans who say they want to ‘fix’ the ESA, my answer is still no thanks,” he said in an emailed statement Thursday.

The Sierra Club has a similar stance. Kirin Kennedy, an associate director for the group, said in a phone interview Wednesday that the solution to helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service better protect endangered species is to give it more funds through appropriations, not to change its policies.

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