Senate holds hearing on Endangered Species Act reform

By Rachel Schadegg

©Gage Skidmore

On Feb. 15, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing entitled “Oversight: Modernization of the Endangered Species Act,” led by Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY). Throughout the hearing, Sen. Barrasso and other Republican Senators established their interest in amending the ESA – they are concerned by the impacts of current implementation on states, private landowners, and other stakeholders such as farmers and businesses, and they are frustrated with the slow rate and small number of species delisted due to recovery.

The hearing featured a five-member panel that testified on the ESA’s purpose, implementation, and effectiveness and answered questions from Committee members about their perspectives on potential modification.

Hearing introduction

In his opening statement, Sen. Barrasso emphatically declared that “the Endangered Species Act is not working today.” He explained that since the ESA was enacted in 1973, less than three percent of listed species have sufficiently recovered to no longer need protections under the statute. He likened this statistic to a doctor who would lose their medical license with such a low rate of patient recovery and asserted that it is time to “modernize the Endangered Species Act.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the Committee’s Ranking Member, was the only Democrat available to actively participate in the hearing due to unrelated emergency meetings. Carper expressed deep concern over the sixth mass extinction. He cautioned that any changes to the statute must preserve its original purpose and must result from a thoughtful analysis of “what modernization means” – including the consequences that potential proposals could inflict. He praised the ESA as a “lifeline that Congress first extended in 1973 to species struggling to adapt to a world forever altered by the presence of one species in particular – us – human beings.” Sen. Carper encouraged the hearing participants to focus on areas of consensus.

Panelist testimonies

The first to testify, Former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal called for a “disciplined” ESA listing process – he agreed that the purpose of the Act is important, but claimed that “the gate for getting in is too low” and suggested that the threshold for listing eligibility should be raised to alleviate a “flooded” system. He emphasized the role of individual states in carrying out the ESA’s purpose and criticized a “moving goal post” in regards to species such as the grizzly bear, the gray wolf, and the greater sage-grouse.

Joining in Gov. Freudenthal’s call for maximizing state involvement was Gordon Myers, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Director and President of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. He believes that state authorities granted by the ESA “have never been fully realized” and emphasized the power of interagency and interorganizational partnerships. Myers called for a clarified distinction between “threatened” and “endangered,” and recommended an improved listing process that expedites delistings and empowers the Secretary of the Interior in critical habitat designation.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President James Holte described how his state’s agricultural industry has been impacted by gray wolf predation, demonstrating his point with an account of a traumatized young farming family whose cattle were spooked and attacked by gray wolves. Gray wolves in Wisconsin are currently listed as endangered under the ESA, despite being proposed for delisting by FWS. Holte insisted that the state’s population has adequately recovered and farmers cannot “protect their livestock and their livelihoods” since shooting wolves is still illegal. He believes that Congress must help prioritize delistings.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife and former Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Pres. Clinton, defended the ESA as a successful statute that has guided the recovery of some of the nation’s most imperiled species. Her perspective squarely differed from Sen. Barrasso’s – “Simply put,” she stated, “the Endangered Species Act works.” She vowed, “The biggest problem that the Endangered Species Act faces is not a need for modernization – it is a need for funding. Conflict surrounding the Act arises when government agencies lack the resources to fully implement the law.”

Dan Ashe, President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and former Director of the USFWS under Pres. Obama, called the ESA a “catalyst” for conservation partnerships. “Mr. Chairman, saving species from extinction is very challenging,” Ashe explained. “It will become increasingly challenging in the future. The Endangered Species Act is the world’s gold standard, and it has helped us to achieve miracles. It is not perfect, and we can make it better. But as this Congress considers its future, your goal should be to make it stronger, faster, and better for the 21st century because life literally depends on it.”

Questions and answers

During the time allotted for questions, Senators tried to focus discussion on what they see as major problems with the ESA. Many believe that there is a need for stronger collaboration with state and local authority, as well as measures to ensure that determinations are based on science rather than litigation. Opposing views were expressed over the idea of moving decisions, like critical habitat designations, to the front-end of the listing process. Ashe advised that moving critical habitat designation up to the listing process would create a huge backlog that would heavily burden the USFWS.

Agriculture was also a large point of interest. Sens. Fischer and Ernst asked the panelists about how agricultural tools and local partnerships could assist states and landowners with recovery and mitigation. Rappaport Clark maintained that pollinators and other species serve an important purpose in the country’s economic profile, and protecting them protects the agricultural industry from losses.

ESA actions in Congress and TWS’ Stance

Efforts to alter the ESA have become a common occurrence in Congress. On Jan. 27, Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) reintroduced the Listing Reform Act, an attempt to add an additional economic review component to the ESA listing process that stalled in the House Committee on Natural Resources during the 114th Congress. Current species-specific legislation targets the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and populations of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region.

The Wildlife Society considers the ESA to be imperative to the preservation of the nation’s biodiversity and supports reform efforts that strengthen the law’s effectiveness in preventing extinction and promoting recovery of threatened and endangered species. TWS’ Technical Review on Practical Solutions to Improve the Effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act for Wildlife Conservation outlines potential improvements that would bolster the ESA’s efficacy while consistently interpreting the law and fulfilling its requirements.

Read TWS’ Position Statement on the Endangered Species Act.

Rachel Schadegg is a policy intern at The Wildlife Society as part of the Government Affairs & Partnership program. Read more of Rachel's articles here.