House Committee Strips Away Endangered Species Protections

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, September 23, 2005 (ENS) – The House Resources Committee has approved legislation limiting the federal government’s power to protect endangered species.

Passed last night, the legislation eliminates the critical habitat provisions of the Endangered Species Act and eases the obligations imposed on private property owners by the existing law.

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo said the bill is needed because the current law "has failed to produce the goal all Americans share – the recovery of endangered species."

Pombo, a California Republican and author of the legislation, told colleagues that only 10 of the 1,268 animal and plant species listed under the Endangered Species Act have been recovered and removed from the endangered species list.


Congressman Richard Pombo, a Republican, represents a district in central California encompassing agricultural lands and small cities. (Photo courtesy Office of Congressman Pombo)
"Thirty years of critical habitat have done very little if anything to help species," said Pombo, a longtime advocate of Endangered Species Act reform on behalf of agricultural, development and private property interests. "The current system does not work."

Critics of the bill, including environmentalists, conservation scientists and religious groups, believe it marks a major rollback of the Endangered Species Act and makes federal protection of habitat necessary for species recovery voluntary.

"It is a drastic mistake to remove the protections for the habitat of endangered species," said Representative Jim Saxton, a New Jersey Republican. "These species don’t magically disappear. They disappear because we destroy their homes."

The Endangered Species Act has been a major success is protecting imperiled species, said Representative Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, and the law’s shortcomings are largely based on insufficient funding and poor implementation.


Congressman Jay Inslee, a Democrat, represents a suburban and rural district adjacent to Seattle. (Photo courtesy Office of Congressman Inslee)
Pombo’s bill is "not modernizing the Act, it is euthanizing it," Inslee said. "It is putting it down with the guise of kindness, with the guise of making it stronger."

The bill passed by a bipartisan vote of 26-12 and the full House could consider the legislation as soon as next week.

The outlook for the bill is unclear - the Senate appears less inclined to embrace such dramatic reform of the law.

Language in the bill relaxes the responsibility of the federal government to ensure actions on federal lands do not jeopardize the future of listed species.

The bill also orders federal wildlife officials to give greater weight to empirical studies over scientific modeling when making decisions about listing and protecting species.

In addition, it calls on the federal government to pay private property owners for development blocked by the Endangered Species Act and to respond to proposals within a year.

Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, said the public should be willing to compensate private property owners in order to further conservation efforts.

"Saving species is a noble cause," Walden said. "But if it is so important … then the public needs to open its wallet and help pay for it."


The ocelot was first placed on the Endangered Species list on March 28, 1972. Still found in Arizona and Texas, the rare cat is designated endangered in its entire range. (Photo by Tom Smylie courtesy USFWS)
The provision would bankrupt the federal endangered species program and encourage disingenuous development plans from private property owners in hope of financial windfalls, said Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat.

"This is a license to speculate," DeFazio said.

Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson said the Bush administration has not taken a formal position on the bill, but told the committee Wednesday that he supports the effort to repeal the critical habitat provision of the Endangered Species Act.

The designation of critical habitat has long been a major point of controversy, with concerns centered on the time it takes the government to comply with the provision and the impact it has on private landowners and federal agencies.

Lands included in critical habitat designations are bound by limitations on the activities designed to protected listed species.

Federal agencies must ensure that activities, such as logging and mining, on public land designated as critical habitat do not further imperil listed species.

Private lands designated as critical habitat are only affected if the landowner plans to engage in an action that requires a federal permit – such as a storm water construction or wetlands dredge and fill permit.


Heller's Blazing Star is an endangered dwarf liatris found only in eight sites, all in northwestern North Carolina. Every member of the genus liatris tested for medicinal properties has been useful in treating cancer. (Photo courtesy Grandfather Mountain)
The existing law calls on the federal government to identify critical habitat when it lists a species and then develop a recovery plan for that species.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has more often than not failed to carry out this mandate until ordered by courts to do so.

Of the more than 1,300 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, only about one-third have designated critical habitat and only 25 percent have recovery plans.

Critics of the existing law say it promotes costly litigation and forces the Fish and Wildlife Service to make arbitrary decisions about critical habitat.

Such decisions harm private property owners and thwart development, Pombo said, and encourage private landowners with imperiled species on their property to "shoot, shovel and shut up."

"The purpose of this bill is to protect my private property owners," Pombo said, "… and to make them willing participants in protecting species and their habitat."

The legislation links identification of habitat to the development of a recovery plan, but does not specify how those lands will be protected for the benefit of listed species.


The endangered Hawaiian monk seal is found largely in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but it too would be affected by the proposed legislation. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Commission)
Representative Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat, said the legislation will "shift the focus from litigation to recovery and biology."

"This bill does not gut, eviscerate, repeal or even weaken the Endangered Species Act," said Cardoza, a cosponsor of the legislation. "It is in no way a home run for anyone, which means in my opinion it is probably pretty good policy."

Although there is growing support for linking critical habitat designation to recovery plans, opponents of the bill say it does not provide adequate assurances that any habitat will be protected.

The language makes habitat protection non-binding and non-regulatory, according to Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

"It replaces critical habitat with political habitat," Markey said.

The push to reform the Endangered Species Act comes amid growing evidence that conservation measures within the United States – and the world – are faltering.

Some 12 percent of the world’s bird species, 23 percent of all mammal species and more than one-third of the world’s amphibians are threatened with extinction.

Scientists estimate the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the natural level and habitat loss is widely believed to be the major factor.