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Republican senator wants to undermine the law that saved the bald eagle

Endangered Species Act supporters warn proposed bill would cripple the law.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), second from left, is leading efforts in the Senate to weaken the Endangered Species Act. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), second from left, is leading efforts in the Senate to weaken the Endangered Species Act. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) released draft legislation on Monday that could severely undermine the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a hugely popular law that has helped save the bald eagle and thousands of other species from extinction.

The proposed legislation would shift key authority for conserving threatened and endangered species away from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to individual states. States would be granted authority to write species recovery goals, habitat objectives, and other criteria for delisting at-risk animals and plants under the ESA.

Many states, however, lack the resources to protect imperiled wildlife and plants. State governors, who often oppose protections for endangered species, also would be granted the power to veto scientific decisions about those protections.

“This partisan bill is all about politics, at the expense of sound science and the species that depend on it for survival,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of the Wildlife, said Monday in a statement. “It is a reckless power grab designed to wrest away authority from scientists and wildlife experts and give it to states that lack the resources — and sometimes the political will — needed to save wildlife from extinction.”

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Soon after taking over as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in early 2017, Barrasso made weakening the ESA one of his top legislative priorities. The senator has sponsored or cosponsored eight bills attacking the Endangered Species Act since 2015 and voted against the Act nearly a dozen times since 2011.

Barrasso’s proposal would also revamp the judicial review process for decisions to delist species under the ESA. “A determination to delist will not be subject to judicial review until the expiration of the monitoring period for a delisted species,” the proposed legislation says.

According to Barrasso, the proposed legislation would “modernize” the ESA because the “status quo is not good enough.”

Supporters of the ESA agree with Barrasso that the status quo is unacceptable — but not for the same reasons as the Wyoming senator. The proposed legislation, according to advocates of the law, ignores one of the biggest challenges to the recovery of endangered species: adequate funding.

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The amount of money appropriated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for recovery of endangered species is only 3.5 percent of what is needed, according to a recent first-of-its-kind analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

Furthermore, a 2017 study by the U.C. Irvine School of Law’s Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources found that states do not have sufficient laws or resources to adequately protect endangered species. And yet, Barrasso’s proposed bill contains multiple provisions giving states overriding control over the federal program to conserve endangered species.

“This bill will absolutely cripple the Endangered Species Act. If it becomes law, some of America’s most beloved animals will go extinct,” Stephanie Kurose, endangered species policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Monday in a statement. “By giving state politicians power over crucial wildlife decisions, Sen. Barrasso’s bill would fundamentally undermine the scientific underpinnings of this highly successful law, which has saved the bald eagle and countless other species from oblivion.”

The ESA has been extremely successful in protecting species. It has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals, including the bald eagle, gray wolf, and California condor, under its protection. Polls show that the law is also hugely popular among the American public — 90 percent of voters support it.

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The popularity of the ESA could explain why its opponents are forced to hide their true intentions. The headline on the news release issued by Barrasso’s office about the proposed legislation reads: “Barrasso releases draft legislation to strengthen the Endangered Species Act.”

Experts on the law contend Barrasso’s proposed legislation will not strengthen the ESA. In fact, it closely mirrors a policy resolution issued by the Western Governors’ Association in June 2017 that would have the opposite effect on species protection.

The governors’ association, in a February 14 letter to Barrasso, praised his efforts to overhaul the law and said the proposed bill — which was being floated at the time — was “generally consistent” with the group’s recommendations.

“The Western Governors’ Association appreciates the Chairman’s willingness to productively engage with Governors, and that the Chairman has approached this polarizing topic in an inclusive, thoughtful manner,” wrote South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) and Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D). “The proposed bill reflects this fact and offers meaningful, bipartisan solutions to challenging species conservation issues.”

The bipartisan support for overhauling the ESA among the nation’s governors could give the legislation momentum, even if doesn’t gain support among Democrats in the Senate. But the iconic nature of the ESA could make passage of the legislation more difficult.

“The Endangered Species Act is our nation’s most effective law for protecting wildlife in danger of extinction,” Marjorie Mulhall, Earthjustice’s legislative director for lands, wildlife, and oceans, said Monday in a statement. “Yet here, just ahead of the Fourth of July, Senator Barrasso has released a bill that would severely undermine our nation’s commitment to protecting wildlife.”