Representative Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chair of the Natural Resources Committee, has had it out for the Endangered Species Act for the entirety of his political career. Now, with a GOP-controlled House, Senate, and White House, he might just have the support he needs to cripple the act—which Bishop has said he “would love to invalidate”—for good.
With five recently introduced bills developed by the Natural Resources Committee, Bishop and his associates target the crucial tenets of the Endangered Species Act, a landmark of American wildlife preservation that has been copied by countries around the world.
A bill introduced by Representative Pete Olson (R-Texas) mandates that economic impact be taken into account when considering whether and how to protect a species. This is a profound departure from the original bill, which mandates that decisions be made based on science alone, without concern for economic effect. In fact, the Endangered Species Act stands out from other wildlife preservation bills around the globe specifically because it doesn’t compromise science for financial reasons. The protection of polar bears as an endangered species in 2008 would likely not have happened if economic concerns were taken into account, according to Dan Ashe, former director of the USFWS and current president and chief executive of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
Another bill forces the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who administer the act, to defer to state-funded research about endangered and threatened species. The argument follows a standard conservative line of thinking—that states are best equipped to handle their own resources—but would inevitably lead to a dismantling of protections, as often happens when federal resources like public land are left to state management. Furthermore, a 2016 study from the University of California Irvine shows that states spend a tiny fraction of what the federal government does on this type of research—$5.7 million as compared to $1.1 billion—and that state regulations cover fewer species. 17 states don’t protect plants, and two states, Wyoming and West Virginia, have no legislation in place to protect endangered species (though Wyoming spends more than other states on wildlife management). Furthermore, half of the states don’t require scientific evidence to add or remove species from state endangered and threatened species lists.
The Endangered Species Act has a provision that makes it easier for citizens and organizations to sue for improved protections of endangered species. Through the Equal Justice Act, the federal government covers attorney fees for individuals and organizations that file claims against the government demanding better protection of species and win. Yet another recently introduced bill removes this tool that makes it possible for citizens to engage with the government and challenge it to better protect natural resources and biodiversity.
One bill, the only introduced by a democrat, Rep. Collin C. Peterson [D-Minnesota], would rescind protections of the grey wolf throughout the midwest, where it is currently protected. The bill also eliminates the possibility of future review of those protections. Finally, a fifth bill would make it impossible for the United States to designate non-native species as endangered or threatened, a move that would open the door to wildlife crimes like ivory sales and trafficking by making it harder to prosecute them under United States law.
So, why the assault on an overwhelmingly popular act that was voted in by the entire Senate and nearly the entire House of Representatives when it was introduced in 1973?
Bishop’s long history of disdain for the Endangered Species Act is in line with his disdain for all conservation measures and federal protection of natural resources. You might remember him as the politician who wants to put federal lands in state hands (the first step towards the sale or development of protected lands), or maybe as the one who spearheaded the national monument review, or the one who desperately wants to rescind Bear’s Ears’ protected status.
De-regulating natural resources opens the door for state and special-interest revenue. In recent decades, complaints about the Endangered Species Act have largely centered on the idea that protecting a species requires too much land to be regulated and (typically) controlled for development. Representative Pete Olson calls the Endangered Species Act “a political weapon for extreme environmentalists” that too often gets in the way of potential revenue and jobs.
Another argument? That protecting endangered species takes too long. Of the over 2,000 species protected by the act, just three percent have recovered enough to be removed from the list. “As a doctor, if I admit 100 patients to the hospital and only 3 recover enough to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license,” says Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
It’s a poor metaphor for many reasons (starting with the fact that medical treatment of a single human being has nothing in common with protecting diffuse populations of wild plants and animals.) The act has done remarkably well in achieving its primary goal: avoiding the extinction of protected species. Where it falters is in recovering robust population numbers, which calls for nuanced, holistic recovery plans that take more time and resources than the act makes available. Furthermore, many of the listed species declined over the course of centuries and have had mere decades to recover—removal from the list is the end goal, but it is not an adequate measure of success.
By early October, the Trump administration was supposed to review 62 petitions to protect endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. 29 were rejected, six delayed, 21 have yet to be reviewed, and just six were accepted. The species denied protection include the Pacific walrus, which was deemed endangered by the Obama administration due to loss of habitat in the form of dwindling summer sea ice, and the Florida Keys mole skink, which is losing habitat rapidly with sea-level rise.
At present, we are in the midst of a human-caused mass extinction event—the sixth in our planet’s history—that has been dubbed a “biological annihilation” by scientists.
Photo by Emma.
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