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As GOP Pushes Overhaul, Conservationists Mobilize to Save 'Endangered Species Act From Extinction'

"This bill is all about politics. It's not about science. It's especially not about better ways to conserve endangered species."

red wolf

The GOP's new draft legislation to overhaul the Endangered Species Act comes as federal officials propose allowing landowners to kill red wolves that leave a North Carolina wildlife reserve. (Photo:  B. Bartel/USFWS/Flickr/cc)

Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) on Monday unveiled draft legislation to overhaul the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in a move that conservationists warn could jeopardize the progress that's been made through the landmark law and limit future initiatives to save various species from extinction.

"It's a bill which, on a broad basis, rewrites the ESA, with a whole host of consequences—as far as we can tell, almost entirely adverse consequences—for the protection of species," Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife, told The Hill. "This bill is all about politics. It's not about science. It's especially not about better ways to conserve endangered species."

Barrasso is a longtime critic of the ESA, and advocates for animals have slammed his ongoing "modernization" efforts as "a smokescreen for a vicious attack on this vital conservation law." This new proposal, Barrasso said, would increase input from state and regional officials, landowners, and "other stakeholders" in listing and conservation decisions, partly by enabling states to establish species' recovery teams that could "modify a recovery goal, habitat objective, or other established criteria, by unanimous vote with the approval of the secretary of the Interior."

It would also, the Casper Star-Tribune noted, "prohibit scientific data from being disclosed in a public records request—if it includes a business or private landowner's proprietary information. Otherwise, the scientific basis of decisions with a species is to be public information."

The draft legislation—which follows reports last week that the "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed allowing landowners to legally kill those wolves once they leave the confines of a small protected area known as Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge" in North Carolina—was crafted with input from the Western Governors' Association (WGA), particularly the group's Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative.

Among the WGA's key goals, according to a report (pdf) published last month, is to "incentivize more widespread proactive and voluntary conservation efforts by industry and private landowners." The WGA initiative is led by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who, during a speech to the Wyoming Mining Association last year, said of the ESA, "It's not good industry, it's not good for business and, quite frankly, it's not good for the species."

Responding to Mead's remarks at the time, Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity had declared, "Governor Mead's statements show that rather than seeking to 'modernize' the Endangered Species Act as he claims, the goal is to repeal or severely hamstring it to benefit his campaign contributors in the fossil fuel industry."

The Center for Biological Diversity and several other conservation groups have repeatedly issued warnings about the intentions of WGA and Mead, with Hartl concluding in February: "Republicans in Congress are looking for political cover to repeal the Endangered Species Act, and any endorsement by the national governors to allegedly improve the Act would play into their profit-driven hands. Governor Mead is no friend of endangered species, and our most vulnerable animals and plants will be lost to extinction if his cynical attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act succeeds."

As Barrasso and his Republican colleagues in the Senate charge forward with his proposal, the conservation group Oceana is circulating a petition to urge members of Congress to fend off these "grave attacks from anti-environment interests" by voting against "bills that would weaken and undermine the ESA."

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