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Western Governors Outline
Plans for ESA Overhaul

by Jennifer Yachnin
E&E News, June 30, 2017

An environmental review is considering whether to breach four lower Snake River dams, including Lower Monumental Dam near Kahlotus. (Photo Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers) The Western Governors' Association this week encouraged Congress to implement reforms to the Endangered Species Act, including measures to encourage state-led conservation efforts as well as increasing funding dedicated to delisting recovered species.

During its annual meeting in Whitefish, Mont., the group released its recommendations for overhauling the ESA, part of its ongoing work on the Western Governors' Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative launched by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) in 2015.

"While the Initiative has closely examined the ESA, the effort goes well beyond consideration of the Act alone," the WGA states in its recommendations.

The document continues, "Governors also are seeking to encourage voluntary conservation -- through early identification of sensitive species and establishment of institutional frameworks that incentivize collaborative voluntary conservation -- thus avoiding the need to list species in the first place."

The recommendations would need to be pursued in Congress.

The proposals include an amendment to ESA that would allow the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marines Fisheries Service to create a "prioritization schedule" for petitions to protect threatened or endangered species.

"Species in immediate risk of extinction will receive highest priority, while species with ongoing conservation efforts or species for which listing would provide limited conservation benefit within the foreseeable future will be placed in a lower priority category," the recommendations state.

Another amendment would create a provision to allow both FWS and NMFS to defer any finding for a species for up to 12 months when states can demonstrate they are working toward conservation plans, or when a group of states is working on a rangewide plan.

"The Services may renew the deferral every five years so long as they have worked with states to complete a determination that the conservation plan continues to meet the conservation needs of the species," the recommendations state.

WGA would also like to see Congress require the Interior secretory to issue a determination on whether or not to designate critical habitats for species.

According to FWS data, as of January 2015 critical habitat had been designated for 704 species among the 1,500 listed as endangered or threatened at that time.

"For many species, recovery planning cannot occur until years after a listing, leaving a lot of time for critical habitat to be compromised in the meantime," the governors wrote. "When necessary, critical habitat should continue to be designated at the time of listing, and re-evaluated as part of the recovery planning process."

The third reform the WGA would ask Congress to pursue would be the establishment of "a recovery team" within 12 months of any new listing. The teams would be charged with the creation and implementation of a recovery plan, as well as recommending delisting or downlisting of species as appropriate.

State governments would be given the option to lead the team, rather than federal officials.

Other recommendations from WGA included the creation of line-item funding for voluntary conservation efforts, as well as designated funding for the delisting or downlisting of species.

The governors acknowledged, however, that congressional efforts to amend the ESA are likely to "be complicated and spark diverse opinions."

Environmental groups including the Defenders of Wildlife criticized the WGA's proposals earlier this week, asserting asking Congress for ESA reforms would open a "Pandora's box" (E&E News PM, June 28).

But the nonprofit Western Landowners Alliance, which represents 14 million acres of private and leased public land, praised the bipartisan governors' group for its work, including a yearlong process of workshops with various stakeholders.

"In particular, we are appreciative of the recognition of the important roles landowners play in wildlife conservation and the need to support their voluntary stewardship efforts," Western Landowners Alliance Executive Director Lesli Allison said in statement. "We believe a collaborative approach to habitat conservation is the best way to keep additional species from reaching a state of threatened or endangered."

Related Pages:
Decades-in-the-making Plan Released for Sockeye Recovery by Brian Smith, Times-News, 7/25/14

Jennifer Yachnin
Western Governors Outline Plans for ESA Overhaul
E&E News, June 30, 2017

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