The Endangered Species Act Put on the “Threatened” List

The California Bighorn Sheep is one endangered species that, for now, enjoys Federal protection. Jared Hobbs / Getty Images

During the Obama years, hundreds of Republican-backed bills aimed at weakening the Endangered Species Act were introduced by Congress and proceeded to go nowhere. But now that the Trump White House shares their anti-regulatory zeal, the Republican majority in Congress is moving fast to curb a half-century of protection for the country’s most vulnerable wildlife.

On February 14, Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.) introduced two bills to amend the Act. His “21st Century Endangered Species Transparency Act” (S. 376), would require federal wildlife officials to put online all the scientific data used to determine whether or not to list a species, while the “Endangered Species Act Settlement Reform Act” (S. 375) would allow local governments and commercial interests to block court-mandated agreements that compel federal action on petitions to protect endangered species.

The Endangered Species Act had strong bipartisan support when it was enacted in 1973. The Senate passed it unanimously, the House by a vote of 390 for and 12 against, and Republican President Richard Nixon signed it into law. Forty-four years later, the Act is a bellwether of the GOP’s rightward drift on conservation issues.

The day after Senator Cornyn introduced his bills, a Senate hearing on the “modernization of the Endangered Species Act,” offered Wyoming’s John Barrasso and other Republicans a chance to criticize the law for overburdening local governments, as well as commercial interests ranging from construction companies and energy firms to farmers and ranchers, with rules and red tape.

“Protection of endangered or threatened species is an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government,” Dave Freudenthal, Republican governor of Wyoming, told the Senate Environment and Public Works committee during the hearing. But “Over time, the mix of regulations, court decisions, policy guidance, and individual agency actions by presidential administrations of differing but still well-intentioned views have created a nearly unworkable system.”

This tangle has undercut states’ rights, economic growth, and job opportunities, they charged, while also failing to help listed species. Fewer than 50 species have been removed from the act’s protection, noted Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe during the hearing.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes both bills, said that the ESA has been working well, with most listed species meeting the goals outlined in their recovery plans.

“Republican complaints about the ESA are totally disingenuous,” says Greenwald, who directs endangered species programs for the group. “They don’t want to see stronger protections for endangered species. They just want to protect the bottom line for their campaign contributors from the oil and gas industry.”

Under the act, federal officials have up to 12 months to decide on a petition to list a species, and an additional 12 months to finalize the listing. But listings typically take 12 years on average, said Greenwald, making lawsuits to enforce the process important tools for conservationists.

Cornyn’s settlement bill would cripple these lawsuits, he said, adding that it “would give the oil industry special intervention rights — veto power — over those settlement agreements” and “dramatically slow the listing of species.” “Its intent is to stop species from getting the protection they need to survive,” said Greenwald.

Greenwald termed the second bill “an additional burden on an already underfunded and beleaguered agency” process. “If Senator Cornyn or Senator Barrasso really wanted the ESA to work better,” he said, “they would support better funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to perform their responsibilities under the act.”