Susan Combs to be named to U.S. Department of the Interior post

Read the original article by Asher Price and Eric Dexheimer at here.

A former Texas official who once referred to proposed endangered species protections as “incoming Scud missiles” will soon be named to a Trump administration post overseeing federal policy on wildlife and parks.

Susan Combs, a rancher and veteran of Texas state government who has long championed private property rights, is to be named acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

The posting comes as she awaits U.S. Senate confirmation for another post at the U.S. Department of the Interior — assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget.

The new job was confirmed by several federal and state officials and one of her partners in an effort to delist an endangered songbird found in Central Texas.

In Texas, local oversight of endangered species rests with the comptroller, the state’s top economic official. In that position, Combs clashed often with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, over restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act, which she viewed as an impediment to the state’s business development.

A 2015 American-Statesman investigation found that Combs was an active opponent of the law, using her budget to finance studies on species that some academics criticized as politically skewed. She regularly found fault with proposals from Washington to list species as endangered, variously citing inadequate science, low-ball economic impact projections or insufficient notification of local residents. During a 2013 legislative briefing she referred to proposed listings as “incoming Scud missiles.”

She also battled federal biologists over protection of the dune sagebrush lizard, whose habitat overlays West Texas oil fields. Federal officials later agreed not to list the rare lizard, instead allowing a state-sponsored protection plan financed by the oil and gas industry. Combs’ replacement, Comptroller Glenn Hegar, last year fired the private company that had been charged with overseeing the work.

Combs continued to resist the Endangered Species Act after leaving office. Her unused campaign money helped fund a petition to de-list Central Texas’ most famous endangered species, the golden-cheeked warbler, whose protected status prohibits development on valuable land in and around Austin. Though the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the effort, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush in 2017 filed a lawsuit pursuing the dispute.

The American-Statesman revealed in 2015 that Combs and a high-ranking official in land commissioner George P. Bush’s office – Anne Idsal, now the head of the Texas regional office of the Trump administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – had pressed military officials at Fort Hood, prime habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, to play up the impact of the bird protections on military training as part of their delisting effort.

“Susan’s appointment fits with the priorities expressed by the President to address the scope and power of the federal government,” Robert Henneke, director of the Center for the American Future at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which represented the General Land Office as it tried to get the species delisted. “I see her as faithful to the text and common understanding of the Endangered Species Act.”

Birders and environmentalists in Texas were critical of Combs’ approach, noting that habitat loss continued.

Gary Mowad, who as head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Texas office from 2010 to 2013 clashed often with Combs, said she is qualified for the position — and that she would take a “very typical, Texas hard-line conservative approach.”

Mowad said the Fish and Wildlife Service “does need to be reined in,” saying species protections have gone too far. He said Combs is likely to “remove a lot of restrictive interpretations” involving, for example, where industry can mine for material in protected habitat areas.

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