Bullock, Mead testify in Congress on Endangered Species Act

The Republican members of a Senate subcommittee are looking to Western governors to give them fodder to limit the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

On Tuesday, three Republican members of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works held a hearing that they titled “Improving the Endangered Species Act.”

The hearing coincided with a Washington, D.C., meeting of the Western Governor’s Association, and WGA chairman Gov. Matt Mead, Wyo., has made the ESA the focus of this year’s WGA initiative.

So, a week after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe decided the sage grouse did not need ESA protection, Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.), John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Dan Sullivan (Alaska) grilled Ashe on what they considered were unwarranted listings and his agency’s use of science.

The USFWS must still decide whether almost 1,600 proposed species need protection and the senators claimed that would require too much time and resources and that the effort would be better spent taking recovered species off the list.

While wolves and grizzly bears were mentioned frequently, much of the questioning dealt with the senators’ skepticism of climate change and insistence on changing the ESA to require states’ approval before any species is given ESA protection.

That may have been part of the reason that no Democratic senator attended the hearing. Similar partisan hearings on the ESA have been held by GOP members of the House.

Sullivan challenged Ashe on the use of climate change models when it comes to predicting the threat to species like the polar bear and ringed seal. Sullivan claimed that the use of climate change predictions was just speculation and could open the door to an unlimited number of listings in his state.

“There’s so much focus on the Endangered Species Act – what about the endangered jobs act?” Sullivan said. “Is there more that needs to be put into the statute to make sure the federal agencies are doing a proper balance?”

Ashe pointed out that both the pika and the wolverine could have been listed because of habitat loss due to climate change, but they weren’t. Species are listed based upon science, but the habitat-protection clause has some flexibility to preserve livelihoods, Ashe said.

“Speculation is one word, but to a scientist, a model is a predictive tool. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we can do,” Ashe said. “Sea ice is in significant decline, and we know that is correlated to the loss of (polar bear) habitat. Since we made our decision in 2008, at every juncture as we have looked at new information about the rate of sea ice loss, it’s worst than we predicted it to be.”

Inhofe, who has said he is not a scientist but dismisses the existence of climate change, didn’t accept Ashe’s explanation that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration developed the criteria for climate change predictions.

“I might not agree with you that this is the best science,” Inhofe said.

After Ashe testified, the three senators heard from Mead and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock about their experiences working with listed species.

Mead’s opinion was that the ESA is broken.

He based that assessment on the fact that Wyoming was not given the authority to manage its wolf population after it developed a management plan. He didn’t mention that part of the reason was Wyoming’s first plan allowed people to shoot wolves on sight. Meanwhile, both Montana and Idaho had no trouble developing more moderate plans that gained USFWS approval.

Mead also complained about his state having to spend $2 million to manage a Yellowstone grizzly bear population that he said was recovered. He asked why that money couldn’t be spent on conserving other species.

Finally, Mead credited his state and others for keeping the sage grouse off the Endangered Species List.

“That wasn’t because of the Act. It was because of the efforts beyond the Act at the local level,” Mead said. “That was due to great relationships. But we need more certainty than that because those relationships might not always be there.”

Conservationists claim the states wouldn’t have worked so hard without the possibility of a sage grouse listing.

Bullock also touted the importance of local efforts in conserving species and agreed that recovered species needed to be delisted sooner. But he said the ESA was still important, although it might be more effective to keep species off the list to begin with.

He highlighted all the work done by Big Hole Valley landowners to keep the arctic grayling off the ESA last summer and said such efforts needed financial support from Congress.

“Some critical seed money came from state wildlife grants which are allocated by Congressional appropriation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service touts these agreements as an important tool for working with landowners on endangered species conservation. But what more can we do to incentivize voluntary efforts to protect species before the ESA ever comes into view?” Bullock said. “Is Congress willing to increase funding for state agencies to work on collaborative efforts? I hope and think that you should.”

Sen. Sullivan asked if Congress should eliminate judicial review or give states co-decision-making authority when it came to listing.

Both Mead and Bullock testified that the USFWS had done a good job consulting with the states on wolves, grizzly bears and sage grouse, but consultation had been inconsistent in the past.

Mead said the USFWS should retain the authority for the decision, because wildlife populations don’t stop at state boundaries and not all governors share the same point of view. He suggested that organizations be required to acquire population data from the state wildlife agencies before proposing a listing and then only one listing at a time.

Over the winter, the WGA will discuss possible changes to the ESA and produce a recommendations and resolutions by June 2016 to be forwarded to Congress.

Mead said the recommendations would be bipartisan, although only four of the 17 U.S. governors in the West are Democrats.

“My goal is not to say we don’t need the Endangered Species Act. How do we improve it for the species; how do we improve it for our citizens; how do we improve it for industries and businesses? I think there is ground to be had there,” Mead said.

Inhofe said he was frustrated about having to protect the habitat of a burying beetle and looked forward to working with the GWA.

“I’m hoping that you and I are going to be in a position to overhaul this system. We’ve talked about it for a long time and now’s it’s time to do it,” Inhofe said.

Bullock was generally in agreement with Mead but took a little stronger stand in support of the ESA.

 “It’s worth remembering that the Endangered Species Act was signed by Pres. Nixon in 1973. He recognized the act as an important commitment by our nation to conserve and protect the rich diversity of animal and plant life for future generations. That noble goal does still hold true today,” Bullock said.