The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Endangered Species Act may be heading for the threatened list. This hearing confirmed it.

An American bald eagle prepares to snag a perch in the prime fishing grounds below Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Md., in November 2012. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A Senate hearing to “modernize the Endangered Species Act” unfolded Wednesday just as supporters of the law had feared, with round after round of criticism from Republican lawmakers who said the federal effort to keep species from going extinct encroaches on states’ rights, is unfair to landowners and stymies efforts by mining companies to extract resources and create jobs.

The two-hour meeting of the Environment and Public Works Committee was led by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who said last month that his focus in a bid to change the act would be “eliminating a lot of the red tape and the bureaucratic burdens that have been impacting our ability to create jobs,” according to a report in Energy and Environment News.

In his opening remarks, Barrasso declared that the act “is not working today,” adding that “states, counties, wildlife managers, home builders, construction companies, farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders” have made that clear in complaints about how it impedes land management plans, housing development and cattle grazing, particularly in western states, such as Wyoming.

Video from August 2015 shows five crocodiles that hatched at the National Zoo. The eggs were laid by Dorothy, a Cuban crocodile. (Video: Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Barrasso’s view is in lockstep with the Trump administration, which wants to cut regulations that impede business, particularly energy cultivation. Last week, the Interior Department under President Trump delayed the start date of protections for the endangered rusty patched bumblebee, which has lost an estimated 90 percent of its population in the past two decades. The department said it is reviewing rules set by the Obama administration only weeks earlier, triggering a lawsuit from a nonprofit conservation group that called the delay and the review illegal.

At least one Republican has vowed to wage an effort to repeal the Endangered Species Act. “It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said, according to an Associated Press report. “It’s been used to control the land. We’ve missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has been hijacked.”

The Endangered Species Act is a 43-year-old law enacted under the Nixon administration at a time when people were beginning to understand how dramatically chemical use and human development were devastating species. It has since saved the bald eagle, California condor, gray wolves, black-footed ferret, American alligator and Florida manatee from likely extinction.

But members of the hearing said its regulations prevented people from doing business and making a living. In a comment to a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director who testified at the hearing, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), repeated a point made by Barrasso that of more than 1,600 species listed as threatened or endangered since the act’s inception, fewer than 50 have been removed.

That’s about 3 percent of the total, the chairman said. “As a doctor, if I admit 100 patients to the hospital and only three recover enough to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license,” Inhofe said.

There was no discussion on the committee about the stability of species that were listed and recovered as a result of the act, and also no discussion of continued human expansion into the habitats of hundreds of species as their numbers dwindle.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) tried to make the point with a question to five members of a panel called to testify about the act: Former Wyoming governor David Freudenthal, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Executive Director Gordon Myers, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President James Holte, Defenders of Wildlife chief executive Jamie Rappaport Clark and Association of Zoos and Aquariums chief executive Daniel Ashe.

Referring to research published in the journals Science and Conservation Biology that the rate of extinction across species is 1,000 times the rate before human expansion, Carper asked the panelists whether they believed the finding that Earth is on the verge of a sixth mass extinction.

Each panelist who testified the act should be significantly changed — Freudenthal, Myers and Holte — said they weren’t qualified to answer such a question. Rappaport and Ashe, the most recent directors of Fish and Wildlife under presidents who are Democrats, emphatically answered yes.

Amid the din of criticism of the act, Carper asked why it was needed in the first place: Weren’t states that manage their individual animal populations aware that some species were disappearing? Why didn’t they act faster to save them before federal officials brought regulations?

Freudenthal took a stab at a reply. “Only in the last 15 years have state game agencies shifted to species management,” he said. “Now agencies have a much broader mission.”

In the years that states were less engaged, according Freudenthal, the total number of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, among others, have declined by half, Ashe said. He added that the act could use tweaking, but hardly needs an overhaul.

“The Endangered Species Act is the world’s gold standard” for government conservation, Ashe said. “It’s not perfect. It can be better. Your goal is to make it … stronger and better.”

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