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Smith seeks species act changes

Published Jan. 27, 2004


Sen. Gordon Smith has introduced legislation that would change the Endangered Species Act to require more scrutiny of science used in implementation of the law.

Smith's bill, introduced on the day Congress convened last week, is nearly identical to a companion measure submitted to the House last April by fellow Republican Rep. Greg Walden.

Both lawmakers say changes are necessary to bring fairness to the process of protecting endangered species.

Smith's bill would require greater weight be given to field-tested and scientifically reviewed data when decisions are made under the ESA.

"Decisions based on bad science can take a tremendous toll on people who make their living from the land," Smith said in a press release. "Just as importantly, the environment doesn't benefit from flawed policies."

Walden applauded Smith's effort, saying more peer reviews need to be required to make the Endangered Species Act more effective.

Walden says his efforts were spurred by the 2001 shut-off of federal irrigation water in the Klamath Basin, a decision made to protect endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho in the Klamath River.

Since the summer of 2001 questions about the science behind the decision have lingered, Walden said.

"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 in a press release.

"As we saw in the Klamath Basin, a scientifically unjustified decision not only brought widespread economic harm to an entire community, but also had the potential to harm the fish species on whose behalf the water-shut off was made."

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said the economic and social calamity of summer 2001 could have been avoided if the decision to cut irrigation deliveries had been reviewed by experts outside of the area.

He said the water users and other groups also had information collected by scientists that could have helped, but was ignored.

The water users support the efforts of Smith and Walden to amend the Endangered Species Act.

"We are not talking about revamping the ESA. We are talking about changing about how it is implemented," he said.

Critics of the proposed legislation say the Endangered Species Act is working fine, and its implementation doesn't need changing.

Steve Pedery of WaterWatch said the lawmakers' energy would be better spent working toward the removal of dams and restoration of habitat for endangered and threatened species.

He said he is disappointed by Smith's act.

"In this case he is dead wrong," he said. "Squeezing the Endangered Species Act won't make a drop of water."

Pedery said the lawmakers are trying to clutter the ESA and bind it with red tape so that eventually the ESA will be torn down by those who say it takes too long. He said the ESA was designed to be an emergency response to species on the brink of extinction, and peer review would take too long in most situations.

"I don't think the goal is to improve the ESA. It is to weaken the ESA," he said.

The ESA doesn't need tinkering. Instead, the agencies in charge of implementing it need more funding and support, said Peter Moyle, wildlife, fish and conservation and biology professor at University of California-Davis.

Moyle, who is involved with the peer review of endangered species petitions, said the ESA works well as it is.

"The problem, as always, is there is never enough time and money to nail down all the information needed," he said.

Smith's act would:

  • Require the secretaries of Interior and Commerce to give greater weight to scientific or commercial data that been field-tested or peer-reviewed when making decisions under the ESA.
  • Establish a mandatory independent scientific review requirement for all ESA listing and delisting proposals as well as biological opinions.
  • Require the secretary of the Interior to solicit and obtain data from stakeholders to assist in developing recovery plans, including recovery goals.
  • Require the Interior secretary to solicit recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences in order to maintain a list of qualified reviewers.

    Smith's bill number is S2009. The number of Walden's bill is HR1662.



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