Motivated by a pair of recent court decisions regarding grizzly bears and gray wolves, Republicans are renewing their calls to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, the law credited with saving those and other animals from extinction.
Over the summer, a federal appeals court ruled to retain protections for the wolves around the western Great Lakes. And just this week, a U.S. District Court restored protections for some 700 Yellowstone grizzly bears at the behest of conservation and tribal groups. Judge Dana L. Christensen ruled that the agency illegally failed to consider how removing the grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park from the endangered-species list would affect bear populations scattered throughout the rest of the United States south of Alaska.
For many GOP members of Congress, that court decision shows exactly why the 45-year-old law that protects Yellowstone grizzlies and other endangered species is outdated.
The grizzly ruling is a "prime example why Congress should modernize the Endangered Species Act," Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso (R), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Tuesday. The state’s lone congresswoman, Liz Cheney (R), went a step further by introducing legislation that would reissue the decision to remove protections the grizzly.
Republicans believe that wildlife managers face too much hassle when trying to take species whose numbers have recovered off of the endangered list and that the courts have too much power to overturn those decisions when environmentalists bring lawsuits.
For years, both Barrasso’s committee and its counterpart in the House have proposed and advanced amendments addressing those concerns to the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which Republicans note has only recovered about 1 percent of the species ever placed on the endangered list. In the case of grizzlies, ranchers out West worry about the carnivores picking off their livestock.
On Wednesday, Republicans running the House Natural Resources Committee revved up those efforts. In the morning, the panel marked up a bill that would remove gray wolves in the Lower 48 from the endangered-species list.
And in the afternoon, it held a hearing on a spate of nine amendments to the endangered-species law. Among those debated were provisions that would encourage landowners to make voluntary conservation efforts, give states more power over listing decisions and limit judges’ ability to intervene — like a federal judge did this week with the Yellowstone grizzly.
“Science and best practices rather than litigation and judges should guide our decisions,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chair of the House committee, said Wednesday during the hearing.
“Everything needs to be updated occasionally,” Bishop added. “It’s been far too long since this was updated.”
Democrats responded by saying the proposed changes would defang the law. The bills, they said, mainly benefit ranchers, farmers and oilmen who often have to work around and avoid harming endangered species.
“These attacks on one of the most successful and popular conservation statutes in the history of the world are old, they’re tired and they’re not fooling anyone,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), the committee’s ranking Democrat.
Many wildlife experts also agree the law needs updating. Collin O'Mara, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, said "there's a kernel of a good idea" in many of the proposals considered Wednesday. But he added, "These bills are much more extreme versions of anything that the coalition of folks who work on these issues have ever proposed."
While in the past many of the GOP's Endangered Species Act amendments have passed out of committee, they have not received votes on the House floor. "We hold these hearings and hold these votes, and we have to wonder exactly why," Grijalva said.
The committee, however, has become a test kitchen for ideas the Trump administration can act on independently. Several recent regulatory revisions from President Trump's Interior Department concerning endangered species align with past proposals from Bishop's committee, such as one to consider the economic impact of saving a species rather than relying solely on science to make decisions. That and other proposals put forward in July have yet to be finalized.
In the short term, the grizzly decision upended hunts planned in two of the three states the park encompasses, Wyoming and Idaho. The bear hunts were scheduled after an official U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finding that the Yellowstone grizzly had exceed its recovery goals with an estimated 700 bears roaming the Yellowstone area. The Obama administration first proposed delisting the Yellowstone population.
But Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, notes the the grizzly's total numbers between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Plains are nowhere near its historic population of 50,000 in the early 19th century. She and other conservationists want to see the Yellowstone population grow to the point where it merges with other pockets of grizzlies, like one near Montana's Glacier National Park near the Canadian border.
"This piecemeal approach that Fish and Wildlife is taking is nonsensical," Santarsiere said.
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