Obama's preemptive strike to reform Endangered Species Act

The administration's proposal is aimed at warding off a GOP overhaul of the law.


The Obama administration this week proposed increasing the role states play in decisions about whether to list animals and plants as threatened or endangered. 

The announcement comes as congressional Republicans have vowed to overhaul the and have been pushing legislation to reduce protections for individual species, including the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken.

The by the Interior Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would require people who want to petition the federal government to list a species to first send petitions to whatever state agencies manage the species in question. If the state responds within 30 days with data, such as population counts or comments, these would need to be included with the petition when it’s sent to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.  Today petitioners don’t need to provide any data, and state input comes later in the process, such as during the 12-month review that starts if the federal agency finds that listing a species might be warranted.

The also would include changes to make the listing process more transparent to the public, more reflective of science and more responsive to voluntary conservation efforts. It also would do away with petitions for multiple species.

A lesser-prairie chicken in its native habitat.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

“These actions will make an effective and robust law even more successful, and will also reinforce the importance of states, landowners and sound science in that effort,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.

The , which represents state agencies, applauded “the intent” of the proposal because they see it as increasing state influence in decisions on listing rare species.

But quickly opposed it, saying it would make it harder to protect rare animals and plants.

“The reason these species are in trouble is because something failed at the local and state level,” , president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Clinton, told HCN. She added that the Obama administration has been too deferential to states.

The administration’s proposal seemed aimed at appeasing Republican congressional leaders who say they plan to overhaul the act, but have yet to draft legislation to do so.

Obama administration officials made the case that the Endangered Species Act is working and does not need a legislative fix. The 40-year-old act has prevented more than 99 percent of the species listed from going extinct. Over the last six years, almost two dozen species have recovered, been taken off the list or been proposed for removal. Also, more than a dozen imperiled species that were candidates for listing under the act have been bolstered by conservation efforts and no longer need to be listed. That includes, as HCN has reported, the Bi-State population of the greater sage grouse, the Montana population of arctic grayling, and the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle.

But GOP critics seemed unlikely to be assuaged.

, R-Utah, said he was glad the Obama administration acknowledged the problems with the petition process under the Endangered Species Act. But he’s skeptical that the Obama administration could be trusted to fix the problem. “I don’t buy it,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Sen. James Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, said the senator still plans to draft a bill to fix the problems that Republicans see with the act.

“As it currently stands, too many of the (Fish and Wildlife Service’s) listing decisions are being driven by litigation settlements that were conducted in a manner that left the public without a voice while the science has been simultaneously short circuited,” Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said in a statement following a recent Senate hearing on the act. 

Inhofe specifically complained that the federal government listed the lesser prairie chicken, despite efforts by Oklahoma and four other states to conserve the bird.

Last week, the House voted to remove protections for the lesser prairie chicken and delay listing of the greater sage grouse for ten years. These provisions were part of the National Defense Authorization Act, and the White House voiced its strong opposition to these measures. Obama threatened to veto the legislation if these provisions are in it when Congress sends it to him.

The Senate has yet to vote on its defense bill, but expects to as early as next month.

Public comments on the proposed rule will be accepted for 60 days following its publication in the Federal Register, probably later this week. The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service did not have a timeline for when to expect a final rule.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. 

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