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Endangered Species Act reconsidered

Published: May 11, 2004

By Keith Chu

The Bulletin

WASHINGTON Republicans have introduced at least four bills in the U.S. House or Senate to reform the Endangered Species Act in the current legislative session. And in the last six months, the Bush administration has made two internal decisions, and is considering a third, that change the act.

The new slate of legislation differs from other efforts to change the law. Republican legislators now speak of improving the act for the sake of animals, rather than for defending the rights of property owners.

Congressional Republicans say the law has been ineffective and is in dire need of an update. They note that less than 1 percent of the 1,300 species on the list have been rejuvenated and removed from the list.

"A lot of these reforms are really backed by developers and industries that are trying to remove the checks and balances that are in the Endangered Species Act and weaken the protections that are in there for the species," said Sarah Matsumoto, a California-based spokeswoman for the Endangered Species Coalition, an environmental advocacy group.

But industry groups said the Endangered Species Act doesn't help threatened animals.

"We believe the worst thing that could be done to the sage grouse is to subject it to the Endangered Species Act," said Jim Sims of the Partnership for the West, pointing to the low rate of recovery. "We want to make sure that listing decisions are based on the best science available, and that science is sound."

Partnership for the West is a Colorado-based mining, oil and gas coalition.

Although most conservation groups agree there is little chance Congress will pass Endangered Species Act reform in an election year, there are currently three bills in the U.S. House, and two in the Senate that would do just that.

  • The Endangered Species Listing and Delisting Process Reform Act of 2003 would "streamline" the listing process, requiring listing actions to be initiated by agencies, rather than public petitions. It would invite input from the public and state governments when deciding whether to protect species.


  • The Sound Science for Endangered Species Planning Act of 2003, sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., would require a peer review of all scientific data used to evaluate endangered species.

    Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., sponsored a Senate version of the bill.


  • The National Security Readiness Act of 2003 would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from designating military lands as protected habitat for endangered species.


  • The Critical Habitat Reform Act of 2003 would require agencies to develop a plan for recovering a species before protecting lands for their benefit. It would also prevent lands being managed under state or local jurisdiction.

    The sound science and critical habitat bills will almost certainly be passed by the House Resources Committee, where Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., has long sought to reform the Endangered Species Act, according to Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the committee.

    "This really is an issue, especially in the West," said Walden. "We have critical habitat decisions made without scientific analysis that demonstrates those designations are warranted and will produce a result."

    But conservation groups say Walden's bill wouldn't help endangered species statistics. Adding additional scientific requirements would only lengthen the listing process when the act already requires decisions to be made based on the best available science, said Steve Pedary of Waterwatch, an Oregon-based conservation nonprofit.

    "What Walden's bill is about is not so much about improving the ESA or streamlining the ESA, as saddling it with so much red tape that it's unable to function," Pedary said.

    With legislation unlikely to pass, the most substantial changes to the act this year have been in the form of administrative decisions by federal agencies, according to conservation groups.

    A recent example was the decision to include hatchery fish when evaluating the health of endangered salmon and trout.


    Keith Chu can be reached at 202-661-0151 or at k-chu@northwestern.edu.


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