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Bad News (for) Bears

Republicans Take New Steps Toward Dismantling the Endangered Species Act

Emboldened by a Republican-controlled Congress and an anti-regulation administration, the GOP is making big moves to cripple the watershed conservation law.

Kaleigh Rogers

Kaleigh Rogers

Framed as a "modernization" of one of the world's most effective and hearty environmental laws, Republicans in Congress signaled a renewed assault on the Endangered Species Act on Wednesday. At a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing, Republicans used tempered language and veiled questions to avoid admitting their true aim: gutting the ESA.

During the hearing, committee members talked about bipartisanship and strengthening the Endangered Species Act, but there's long been acrimony from the GOP over the law because of how it can impede businesses from profiting off of natural resources.

"It was really tactical, because to come out guns blazing on a law that is so popular with the public would have just set up a battle," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, who testified at the hearing. "But ultimately they'll have to reconcile what they do with what they say." 

From 1997 to 2001, Clark was the director of US Fish and Wildlife Services, which is largely tasked with implementing the ESA. She told me the committee members actions in Congress tell a different story than the one presented at Wednesday's meeting, and show that Republicans are still determined to weaken the ESA.

Established in 1973, the Endangered Species Act is a watershed environmental law that requires the federal government to favor science and data while making every effort to conserve the species listed as threatened or endangered under the act. It's very effective, but it's also contentious: Republicans have been trying to dismantle the act since the 90s, and the most recent Congress lobbed a record 135 bills aimed at weakening the ESA. 

Grizzly bears, which are listed under the ESA, are a point of major debate. Image: WikiMedia Commons

But now, emboldened by a Republican-majority Congress and an anti-regulation administration, the GOP is signaling big moves to cripple the conservation law. They've already started introducing new bills to shift power away from the federal government and prevent the act from being enforced. 

One bill, introduced Tuesday by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY)—the chair of the environmental and public works committee—has to do with litigation over the ESA. All of the US's major environmental statutes have clauses that allow private citizens to take the government to court if they don't believe the law is being properly enforced, and if they win, the government has to pay the private party's legal fees. It's become an effective tool for environmental groups to leverage more action out of the government, and is a major sticking point for Republican critics of the ESA. 

Barrasso's bill would require the government to create an online, searchable database of all these lawsuits, the parties involved, and how much it cost the government. Barrasso has stated that this is directly intended as a first step towards preventing environmental groups from getting fees reimbursed for these lawsuits, which would it much more difficult and costly for groups to hold the federal government accountable. 

"It's absolutely absurd that Washington pays outside groups to repeatedly sue our government," said Barrasso in a press release.

The hearing was sparsely attended—at one point only a single committee member remained—due to a number of Senate votes happening at the same time. Most of the attendees were Republican senators, who criticized a lack of state-level autonomy in species conservation, a slow delisting process, and the burdens the ESA sometimes places on private land owners. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) highlighted Iowa's efforts to conserve the monarch butterfly in order to prevent it from being listed under the ESA.

"This is a great example of where Iowa has really stepped up to the plate," Ernst said. "We would much rather see that than heavy handed government approaches."

But while there's consensus that the way the government implements the ESA could be improved, experts like Clark argue that's better done through administrative reform—like doing a better job communicating to states about species that might be at risk, and letting the states work on a solution first—rather than by making drastic changes to the law. 

"The real elephant in the room is funding—if the law was funded anywhere near the level that would be essential to its effectiveness, you would see a lot of these problems erode," Clark said. "If we lose this law, we're going to lose it forever."