Congress kicks off with unfinished business

By Caroline E. Murphy

©Wally Gobetz

The 115th Congress has been in session for two weeks and already several actions taken could ultimately have large impacts on wildlife conservation and management in the United States.

Rules Package

The start of the new Congress began with the passage of a contentious Congressional Rules Package that alters the way in which the House of Representatives conducts business. One rule within the package, known as the Holman Rule, will allow any member of the House to offer amendments to appropriations bills that are aimed at cutting federal staffing levels in specific government programs or are aimed at reducing a federal employee’s pay.

Another rule change, introduced by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), will allow Congress to transfer federal land to states without offsetting the cost of that land transfer in the federal budget. Historically, Congress had to account for potential losses in federal revenue generated by activities such as drilling, logging, and grazing when they made efforts to divest federal lands. Now the potential financial losses to the federal government from land divestitures are no longer an impediment for legislation to move through the legislative process.

Legislation Reintroduced

Many members of Congress have picked up where they left off in the previous Congress, such as Representatives Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA). Last week they reintroduced legislation to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund – a program that allows states and municipalities to carry out conservation and recreation programs and provides the federal government with the ability to purchase inholdings to better manage federal lands. Last Congress this bill did not make it out of committee, but showed strong support with 211 cosponsors.

Representative Bishop is also continuing on with long–stated initiatives. Representative Bishop, a vocal critic of federal greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) conservation efforts, introduced a bill (H.R. 527) that would allow states to block sage-grouse conservation plans on federal lands throughout the West. Bishop introduced similar legislation last Congress and was also a backer of provisions that would have blocked future Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing considerations by FWS for the species for the next ten years.

Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) have taken aim at the ESA status for another species: the Western Great Lakes and Wyoming populations of the gray wolf (Canis lupus). This new legislation (H.R. 424, S. 164) follows repeated legislative attempts in previous sessions of Congress to delist these populations after a court struck down a Fish and Wildlife Service rule to delist in 2014. The Administration is currently appealing the court’s decision.

On the Horizon

Attempts to modify the ESA will likely be a major point of contention in this Congress. Lawmakers such as Senator Barrasso (R-WY), Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, have noted that ESA reform will be a top priority for the committee during this Congress. Representative Bishop has also indicated his desire to address the ESA in legislation. Likely sections of the ESA subject to added scrutiny this Congress include the level of influence that states have in the listing process as well as the level of judicial review a delisting decision can undergo.

Before any legislative actions are taken, Senate Committees will be busy dealing with hearings and votes on Trump Administration appointees. President-elect Trump has just selected former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as his pick to run the United States Department of Agriculture, which houses the Forest Service. The confirmation process for Governor Perdue will likely not begin in earnest until after the inauguration. This week the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a confirmation hearing for Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT), the nominee to become Secretary of the Interior. A vote on Representative Zinke is expected within the coming days.

Read TWS’ Technical Review on Practical Solutions to Improve the Effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act for Wildlife Conservation

Read TWS’ Position Statement on Wolf Restoration and Management in the Contiguous United States

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Greenwire (January 17, 2017)

Caroline Murphy is the Government Affairs Associate at The Wildlife Society as part of the Government Affairs & Partnership program.

Read more of Caroline's articles.