Congress Addresses Reforms to the Endangered Species Act

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Facing an arbitrary court-ordered deadline of September 2015, rural communities across eastern Oregon are rushing to prevent the listing of the Greater sage-grouse under the ESA in hopes of avoiding the detrimental economic impacts that have followed listings elsewhere in the West.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Endangered Species Transparency and Reasonableness Act, which makes common sense reforms to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) was a cosponsor of this important bill and supported it when it passed the House.

“Too often, listing decisions under the ESA are driven by litigation and made behind closed doors with little public input. Oregonians deserve more transparency and the ability to better participate in the decision making process that so greatly affects their livelihood. This common-sense bill would reform the ESA to bring much-needed transparency to how management decisions are made and implemented,” Walden said.

The Endangered Species Act has already had an impact throughout Oregon’s rural communities. Northern spotted owl critical habitat designations have led to federal timber harvests dropping by more than 90 percent in the last 30 years. Facing an arbitrary court-ordered deadline of September 2015, rural communities across eastern Oregon are rushing to prevent the listing of the Greater sage-grouse under the ESA in hopes of avoiding the detrimental economic impacts that have followed listings elsewhere in the West.

Walden has long advocated for more local input in the endangered species listing process. Last month, Walden and 42 other Members of Congress urged the Obama Administration to give more time for the public to comment on three proposed Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations that would make sweeping changes to how critical habitat designations are determined under the law. Although the Members requested a six month extension, the Administration only agreed to extend the comment deadline for 90 days.

The Endangered Species Transparency and Reasonableness Act is a package of four bills approved previously by the Natural Resources Committee. Specifically, the legislation would:

•    Require that data used by agencies for listing decisions be made available to the public online.
•    Require that federal agencies disclose data used to affected states before an ESA listing decision. It would also require that federal agencies incorporate scientific data and input from states, tribes, and counties.
•    Require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make available online the amount of taxpayer dollars used to respond to ESA lawsuits, the number of employees dedicated to it, and attorneys’ fees awarded during litigation and settlement.
•    Places caps on attorneys’ fees under the ESA just like caps in place at other federal agencies. Under the ESA, attorneys are being awarded rates as much as $600 per hour. The federal government limits fees to $125 per hour in federal suits involving Social Security, veterans, and disability claims.
Since its enactment in 1973, over 1500 species have been listed as a result of the Endangered Species Act and only 2 percent have been recovered.

The last time the ESA was renewed by Congress was in 1988  long before the internet and cell phones were as widespread and available for commercial use as they are today. With new technological capabilities readily available and strong support for conserving endangered species there are key areas where improvements could be made to make the law more effective for both species and people in the 21st century.

The Obama Administration’s Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service even acknowledged earlier this year that there could be “opportunities to make incremental improvements” to the ESA.

Excessive litigation has become one of the greatest obstacles to the success of the ESA. Instead of focusing on recovering endangered species and protecting those most at the brink of extinction, groups are using the ESA to file hundreds of lawsuits against the government at taxpayers’ expense to force hundreds of listings in just four years. In response, agencies have devoted significant resources addressing those lawsuits and new petitions instead of on species recovery.

WALDEN.HOUSE.GOV

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