Return to 2005 could spell disaster for endangered species

Yesterday, the House of Representatives full Committee on Natural Resources held the first of what will likely be a series of hearings on the landmark Endangered Species Act (ESA), which has been protecting imperiled plants and animals and riling land developers and other industries for almost four decades. 

The hearing, especially remarks made by Committee Chair Doc Hastings (R-WA), echoed the fight back in 2005 to save the ESA from similar attacks led by then Committee Chair Richard Pombo (R-CA), a fight in which the ESA survived – barely.

The basic premise used now by pro-industry, anti-ESA interests and legislators to justify a “rewrite” of the law, just as it was then, is that the ESA is broken because species aren’t recovering fast enough, and we need to make it more effective for “both species and people.” 

Read: powerful economic and political interests don’t like it when an endangered snail, or flower, or butterfly gets in the way of a new shopping mall, logging operation, cattle herd, or gas field. 

In their eyes, decisions about whether to protect endangered species of plants and animals should include an economic cost-benefit analysis, but when is a salamander or a cactus or a rare, prehistoric fly, all economically worthless but ecologically priceless, ever going to win that battle? 

Rarely, and when unemployment is at 9 percent, never.

The ESA is controversial for two reasons: It’s stubborn, and it has teeth.  It requires decisions whether to list species as endangered to be based on science, and only science. 

And, once listed, protections against killing, harassing, harming, touching or bothering endangered species and their critical habitat are fairly absolute, and infractions carry steep penalties. 

Once more, the ESA allows everyday citizens like you and me to petition the government to list species, and file lawsuits to force compliance, an option not found in most Federal laws.  The “citizen suit” provision, as it’s called, came under heavy fire yesterday at the hearing, as groups that use the provision to force the government to list imperiled species were lambasted for blocking “job-creating projects.” 

Endangered species are now “job killers.”  Great.

The entire panel at yesterday’s hearing – land developers and wildlife conservation advocates alike – agreed that species recovery is the ultimate goal, but preventing extinction must happen first, and in that regard the ESA has been incredibly effective precisely because it draws a line and says “no more” when species are declining.

Congress needs to follow suit and say “no more” to this latest attack on endangered species and the law that protects them. 

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has petitioned to list two species in the last couple of years, both severely imperiled – Peary and Dolphin-Union caribou and African lions.   

--PT

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