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gray wolf

Two proposed laws target Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region. In recent years, the gray wolf has been a primary target of similar proposals that have led to battles in federal court. (Photo: Derek Bakken/flickr/cc)

Warnings as GOP Aims to Gut Protections for Endangered Species

House and Senate committees consider bills to roll back longstanding protections for vulnerable plants and animals

Jessica Corbett

Conservation groups are issuing warnings on Wednesday as Congressional committees in both chambers considered Republican-backed bills aimed at weakening the Endangered Species Act.

"If these dangerous bills are enacted, hundreds of plants and animals will be put on a fast track to extinction."
—Brett Hartl, Center for Biological Diversity

In the Senate on Wednesday, the Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing for the ironically named Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation (HELP) for Wildlife Act. And while its backers refer to it as the Sportsmen's Bill, critics describe it as a Trojan horse specifically designed to undermine the species protection laws.

The proposed law would block ESA protections for gray wolves in the Great Lakes region. In recent years, the gray wolf has been a primary target of similar proposals from lawmakers, who are lobbied by ranchers and hunting groups, but they have hit roadblocks in federal court. Gray wolves around the Great Lakes remain protected, due to a court ruling in 2014, but in March a federal Appeals Court overturned a lower court's ruling and allowed the gray wolf to be delisted in Wyoming.

The "HELP" law proposes prohibiting judicial review of the wolf delisting in the Great Lakes and Wyoming, which, as Earthjustice said in statement "sets a damaging precedent for undermining all laws that allow citizens from across the political spectrum to go to court to hold the government accountable for its actions."

The House's Natural Resource Committee also held a hearing Wednesday to address legislation that would weaken the ESA. The five House bills include additional attacks on the gray wolf protections, as well as measures to ban ESA protections for species that are not native to the U.S., and to "require review of the economic cost" of granting protections to future threatened and endangered species.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who chairs the House committee and is an outspoken opponent of the ESA, has said he "would be happy to invalidate the Endangered Species Act," and that lawmakers should "repeal it and replace it"—suggesting a potentially more covert Congressional battle along the lines of the GOP's recent failure to destroy Obamacare.

Republicans, including Bishop and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Senate committee, have called for efforts to "modernize" the ESA. Barrasso, who helped craft the Senate's bill, introduced it to his committee as "comprehensive, bipartisan legislation designed to enhance recreational hunting and sport fishing activities, to ensure commonsense environmental regulation, and protect wildlife and wildlife habitat." 

However, experts and environmentalists have challenged lawmakers' motives, and the consequences for enacting the legislation discussed Wednesday.

"None of it is based in science. None of it is going to make the Endangered Species Act work more efficiently or effectively," Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife and a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Huffington Post. "And absolutely none of what they are doing will accelerate species recovery or slow down species extinction. So it's really kind of selfish and self-serving."

Clark's group has documented at least 130 bills and amendments aimed at weakening the ESA that were introduced during the last Congressional session.

"Politicians should be heeding the warning from scientists that we are entering a new mass wave of extinction by shoring up species protections, not gutting one of the most important and successful wildlife conservation laws ever enacted," said Marjorie Mulhall, legislative director for lands, wildlife, and oceans at Earthjustice.

As National Geographic recently reported, some scientists have "concluded that we may already be amid the sixth mass extinction since the beginning of life on Earth," and "if current trends continue...half of the planet’s species may be on the path to extinction by the end of the century."

"If these dangerous bills are enacted, hundreds of plants and animals will be put on a fast track to extinction," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "These efforts to gut and repeal the Endangered Species Act are deeply unpopular with the American people who recognize that this incredibly successful law saved the bald eagle, humpback whale, American alligator, and many more species from being lost forever."

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service—a federal agency at the Department of the Interior that's charged with implementing the ESA—501 animal species and 774 plant species are currently endangered in the U.S., with another 377 listed as threatened.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a formal pledge by the federal government "to conserve to the extent practicable the various species of fish or wildlife and plants facing extinction." It was passed almost unanimously by Congress in 1973, following similar measures enacted in the 1960s. For more than four decades, the ESA has helped save from extinction 99 percent of species it covers, including the gray whale and the bald eagle.

One of the ESA's success stories is the peregrine falcon, which nearly became extinct in the 1970s in large part because of DDT, a dangerous pesticide used in the mid-1900s. The FWS was able to delist the falcon in 1999, but continues to monitor the species:

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