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Congress likely to take up peer review in ESA reform effort

Land Letter

Western Republicans, who have long railed against what they see as the unintended consequences of the Endangered Species Act, are pledging to tackle ESA reform measures this year, beginning with bills that would add mandatory peer review criteria to the 30-year-old act.

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) has repeatedly said his top priority for this year is ESA reform, especially considering only 12 of over 1,300 species have been completely recovered after being placed on the Endangered Species List.

Likewise, Western Business Coalition members pegged ESA reform as second on its list of priorities for this session of Congress, just after passing the energy bill.

Pombo, who has been talking with other lawmakers about ESA reform, found the most common ground on the issue of "sound science," committee spokesman Brian Kennedy said. Two Oregon Republican lawmakers, Rep. Greg Walden and Sen. Gordon Smith, stung by the 2001 water shutoff in the Klamath Basin, have proposed bills that would require the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to give greater weight to field-tested and peer reviewed data.

"Providing independent, scientific peer review of decisions made under the ESA is essential not only to safeguard the rights of private citizens, but also to protect the very species that the law is intended to protect," Walden said, citing the 2001 determination by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to shut off water to farmers in Oregon's Klamath Basin to ensure the survival of the endangered sucker fish and threatened coho salmon.

A National Academy of Sciences review of the situation later determined the shutoff was unnecessary.

"Just about every state in the country has some story about a decision under the Endangered Species Act that was scientifically faulted or politically motivated," said Smith spokesman Chris Matthews.

While peer review appears to have the most traction, Pombo plans to look at other ESA-related issues, including improving data reliability in listing decisions and addressing the litigation crisis currently confronting FWS over missed statutory deadlines for species listings and critical habitat designations.

Pombo is also looking at a bill by Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) that would address the critical habitat issue. The bill would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a recovery plan for species at the same time it designates critical habitat, as well as broaden the criteria for determining the economic impact of critical habitat designations.

Republican lawmakers have attempted piecemeal ESA reform before. A similar peer review bill by former House Resources Committee Chairman James Hanson (R-Utah) made it out of the committee in the 107th Congress but never came up before the full House.

Expected opposition by Democrats and environmental groups does not discourage ESA reform proponents, however. "Sometimes it takes a long time to pass legislation that is desperately needed," said Matthews, citing the seven-year effort to pass "Healthy Forests" legislation that ultimately succeeded last fall. "If you keep working at it and more and more situations arise where they use faulty science," support for the bills will increase, Matthews said.


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