GOP Plots New Course on
by Timothy Cama
Republicans in the House and the Senate are plotting separate courses for how to dial back the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a long-time foe of conservatives and strong GOP supporters like oil drillers and ranchers.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who in January stepped into chairmanships atop committees that oversee the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are working on new strategies aimed both reforming the law and making specific changes to benefit the people that use the land imperiled species call home.
But Democrats are promising to defend tooth and nail the four-decade-old law from what they see as attempts to dismantle it, and one top Democrat is planning his own competing package to strengthen the conservation law.
Republicans say they want to improve the law so that it simultaneously is less of a nuisance to landowners and users and it better protects animals and plants.
Designating a species as endangered or threatened usually brings restrictions on activities that could harm it. But critics point to the ESA's 2 percent rate of species being removed from the lists as evidence that it does not work.
"In the past, it has been less about rehabilitating species and more about control. And that's part of the problem," said Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
"That's why the act is not as successful as it ought to be, because our regulatory agencies are not zeroing in on how you actually rehabilitate a species, as opposed to how you control the land surrounding it."
Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, laid out many of the common Republican objections to the ESA at a hearing earlier in May to examine the Fish and Wildlife Service's budget and discuss a litany small of bills related to it.
"The Endangered Species Act has gone from a well-intentioned piece of legislation in the 1970s to one that is dictated by environmental activist groups taking advantage of the adversarial system," Inhofe said.
He hoped that the nine bills discussed -- to remove some species protections', change the way the agency considers scientific studies or other tweaks -- would provide a "clear direction in moving forward as to how we can modify the Endangered Species Act and return to its purpose."
The House Natural Resources Committee has not given much legislative attention to the ESA yet this year, focusing instead on policies like energy production and national forest management.
That's in contrast to last year, when the committee, chaired by then-Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), set out on a major, public effort that resulted in a package of four ESA reform bills that passed the House but went nowhere in the Senate.
Bishop said there's no reason to interpret that as a lack of attention to the matter, noting that he could potentially be chairman for six years.
"You'll see those four bills coming back again," he said. "And then we'll go beyond that. At first, we're going . . . to establish some of these hearings so that we can enunciate what the problems are, and we'll go from there."
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who led the reform effort last year, is looking forward to more work on the policy this year.
"Litigation, particularly procedural lawsuits, is increasingly driving ESA policy and has utterly failed to increase species recovery," said Joe Spiering, Lummis' spokesman.
"Transparency will lead to smarter policies and better outcomes for both for species and people, as will a renewed focus on the boots on the ground conservation at the state and local level, where conservation awareness and expertise is at an all-time high."
Meanwhile, the lower chamber is dealing with individual endangered species issues, although not in the committee that usually handles them.
The House passed an annual defense bill Friday that would force the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove protections for the lesser prairie chicken and the American burying beetle.
It would also delay for at least 10 years a listing decision for the greater sage grouse, which has become a rallying point for both supporters and opponents of the law.
In the Senate, Inhofe is planning a comprehensive reform package, which spokeswoman Donelle Harder said is still in early discussions.
In the mean time, the panel is considering individual bills, including ones to remove or prevent protections for the greater sage grouse, the northern long-eared bat and the mule deer, and to change how officials use scientific studies in their determinations and how outside groups can sue to force decisions.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, pledged to make it difficult for Republicans to get their bills passed.
"We will have hand-to-hand combat on the floor if these bills get that far, which they may get voted out of this committee," she said at the hearing.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member in the House committee, said the GOP's strategy of using small bills makes it harder for Democrats to fight back. But he's working on his own comprehensive reform legislation as an answer to the Republicans.
The bill, he said, "deals with the complaints around ESA in terms of how it can be expedited but strengthens some other areas," adding that it would serve as "a place-setter that people can look to as an alternative."
The Obama administration may be open to some of those changes.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said at the hearing that the ESA is due for a re-write, since the last one was in 1988.
"I do believe that the Endangered Species Act should be reauthorized, and I think there could be room for improvement of the law," he said at the Senate hearing, noting that the eight Republican bills would not help.
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