May 2015 Legislative Threats to the Endangered Species Act


After a long hiatus, I'm resurrecting this monthly blog to once again capture the panoply of congressional threats to one of our nation's most beloved laws--the Endangered Species Act. With a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate and new Chairs governing the House Natural Resources Committee and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, there is renewed vigor to decimate the Act.

Much of the craziness this month revolved around the House's work on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2016 (H.R. 1735)--the yearly appropriations bill to fund the Department of Defense. Because this bill is so important and, thus, difficult for legislators to vote against, it has become a favorite vehicle on which Republicans add anti-environmental provisions.

This year, the House version of the bill - which passed on May 15 - would delist the lesser prairie chicken, prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the greater sage-grouse until 2025, permanently remove the endangered American burying beetle from protection under the ESA and prevent it from ever being listed again, and harm sea otters by exempting the Navy from complying with the ESA and the Marine Mammal Protection Act when it comes to the species in two locations off of California.

Why is this so troublesome?

First, these species are exactly the kinds of imperiled creatures the ESA was created to protect. The lesser prairie chicken population dropped by 50% between 2012 and 2013. Greater sage-grouse have plummeted by as much as 90% from historic numbers. The American burying beetle, which formerly occupied 34 states and the District of Columbia, now only occurs in two states. And Southern sea otters, which numbered between several hundred thousand to over one million before being nearly hunted to extinction by fur traders in the 1700s and 1800s, are still recovering.

(c) Fish and Wildlife Service

Second, these provisions don't belong on the NDAA as they're unrelated to military readiness. There is absolutely no reason to include such unrelated provisions on one of the most important pieces of legislation that Congress passes each year.

And third, the ESA already includes exemptions for national security and for the Department of Defense.

The Senate is scheduled to take up its version of the NDAA (S. 1376) in June, which we already know contains the same harmful sea otter provision. And we're sure to see many anti-ESA amendments offered up for a vote.

In addition, on May 6, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a hearing on eight bills that would undermine the essential protections of the ESA: S. 112, S. 292, S. 293, S. 468, S. 655, S. 736, S. 855, and S. 1036. The bills do everything from obstructing the listing process to prioritizing short-term economic gains above conservation to hindering development and use of the best available scientific research to squandering agency resources and chilling citizen enforcement of the Act. Environmental groups, including NRDC, vigorously opposed the bills in a letter sent to EPW committee members.

The rest of the summer promises to be no less chaotic with a series of appropriations bills, including Interior Appropriations, set to hit the floor. Time to get ready!