Dems push back against anti-ESA riders

Republican leaders have stepped up their attacks on the Endangered Species Act. But with more species needing protection, Congressional Democrats have taken a stand against such efforts.

On Thursday, 25 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Pres. Obama protesting the large number of appropriations riders that seek to strip many of the protections in the Endangered Species Act. The riders would block federal protections for gray wolves, greater sage grouse, lesser prairie chicken, and numerous other species.

“More than 80 legislative proposals have already been introduced in this Congress to undermine key pieces of this vital law and to block protections for particular species. All such legislative attacks – including the record number of FY 2016 Interior appropriations riders – undermine the Endangered Species Act, which calls for science-based decision-making to protect all wildlife, plants, and fish that are in danger of extinction,” the letter said.

The letter, penned mainly by Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.), praised the wisdom of the 1973 law and cited a recent Tulchin Research national poll conducted for Defenders of Wildlife that found that 90 percent of American voters support the Endangered Species Act.

Pollster Ben Tulchin summarized the rest of the results, saying “voters feel strongly that decisions about which species are protected under the Endangered Species Act should rest with biologists and not with members of Congress. Furthermore, voters reject the contention by critics of the Endangered Species Act that the law hurts our economy and believe we can protect wildlife and grow the economy at the same time.”

The online poll surveyed 600 representative voters from across the nation in June.

With popular support, the senators asked the president to oppose all anti-ESA riders that might accompany an Interior Departmentappropriations bill.

Sen. Jon Tester did not join eight other Western Democrats who signed the letter, including both senators from the states of New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington.

Tester spokeswoman Marnee Banks said Tester would "use his position on the Appropriations Committee to ensure that Montana’s wildlife are protected and remain a critical part of the fabric of our state."

Six weeks earlier, 92 House Democrats, led by ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.), sent a similar letter to Obama after GOP congressmen added more than 80 anti-ESA riders to both Interior and Defense appropriations bills.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had just decided against listing the greater sage grouse because strategies laid out in state and agency management plans were considered sufficient. In addition, the Department of Defense acknowledged that the listing wouldn’t have affected military preparedness.

But GOP politicians weren’t satisfied.

Sen. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) asked the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to adopt an amendment undermining the habitat protections that had allowed the USFWS to issue its “not warranted” listing for the sage grouse.

“We face national security challenges from Isis to Iran to Syria, and Republicans insist on sending the president a defense bill chock full of poison-pill provisions that have nothing to do with national defense,” Grijalva said in a statement. “Let’s focus on paying and equipping the men and women serving in our military and funding government agencies that provide essential services to the American public, not on driving the extinction of American wildlife one species at a time.”

Around the same time, Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, called a hearing where he and two other GOP senators asked representatives of the Western Governors Association to come up with ways to change the ESA. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead has chosen the ESA as focus for this year’s Western governors' project.

At the same hearing, the senators took USFWS Director Dan Ashe to task on what they considered were unwarranted ESA listings including the polar bear. Ashe pointed out that several species haven't been listed recently, including the sage grouse, arctic grayling and wolverine. Sen. Daniel Sullivan, (R-Alaska) then claimed the Endangered Species Act endangers jobs.

That doesn’t quite hold up anymore. On Friday, the October jobs report showed the strongest yearly wage gains since 2009 and the lowest unemployment rate in more than seven years.

But meanwhile, scientists have documented that humans are causing a rapid loss of biodiversity that rivals the Earth’s five previous extinction events. For other species to survive, the public needs to be educated on how to preserve species, and efforts to recover species need to be coordinated between various states and organizations across a landscape. That’s what the ESA does.

Had the sage grouse been listed, it wouldn’t have stopped grazing or natural resources development in sage-grouse habitat. But it would have added restrictions to that development, which natural resources industries and developers oppose.

That’s what motivates political efforts to gut the act. But without those restrictions, it’s unlikely that some species would recover.

Montana is affected by several ESA listings, from bull trout and pallid sturgeon to grizzly bears and lynx. That’s partly because Montana still has open land and wildlife to protect.

When a species is listed, it’s protected, but the ESA’s main focus is preservation and restoration of habitat.

That ends up benefiting some Montanans, such as outfitters, guides and photographers who depend on scenic country for their living and those who enjoy recreating in wild places. However, it can cause frustration for ranchers that have to deal with large carnivores, although some, such as members of the Blackfoot Challenge, have learned how to deal with them.