Congress's Hostile Takeover of Endangered Species Efforts

A Gunnison sage-grouse in Utah. (Photo: Bryant Olsen/flickr/cc)

Congress's Hostile Takeover of Endangered Species Efforts

Last week, Congress attached a rider to the omnibus spending bill that blocks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from issuing new protections for both greater and Gunnison sage-grouse over the next year, dealing a blow to efforts to reverse these birds' continued decline toward extinction.

The rider is an attack on these iconic birds and the vast, wide-open spaces they share with scores of other wildlife species, from mule deer to pronghorn antelope to pygmy rabbits. It is also an assault on accountability and the rule of law, two cornerstones of our democracy.

Sage-grouse have suffered major declines over recent years. Rapid expansion of fossil fuel operations has fragmented and destroyed the sagebrush ecosystems these birds need to survive. In the Great Basin, chronic overgrazing by livestock led to the invasion of exotic cheatgrass and unnaturally frequent wildfires that destroy the sagebrush habitats required by sage-grouse and other wildlife. It's a land health crisis that has wracked the interior West for decades.

Just as long-overdue solutions were taking effect, Congress starts meddling in the business of land and wildlife management agencies, pulling the rug out from under conservation efforts.

This breathtaking act of arrogance replaces the scientific expertise that guides the Fish and Wildlife Service with the political whims of politicians in determining what is needed to prevent the extinction of imperiled native wildlife. Most members of Congress have never even seen a sage-grouse, much less have they developed a deep understanding of the voluminous science and the complicated interplay of strengths and weaknesses of the various methods to save this charismatic Western bird.

Congress should leave sage-grouse conservation to the experts.

The rider prevents federal funding from being spent to meet court-imposed Endangered Species Act (ESA) deadlines. In California's Mono Basin, a final listing decision on the "Distinct Population Segment" of sage-grouse in that isolated area is required by court order in April of next year, and a draft listing proposal for the greater sage-grouse across 11 Western states must be issued by September 2015. This creates a thoughtless waste of the taxpayer dollars and professional effort spent gathering the best available science to formulate blueprints to recover these rare birds.

My organization, WildEarth Guardians, secured these listing deadlines after a hard-won legal battle, and the deadlines cure a decades-long failure by federal agencies to take action on 252 imperiled plants and animals that had been languishing on the Candidate Species list, "warranted" for ESA protection "but precluded" by higher priorities that never materialized. Now, Congress is stepping in to halt the progress the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is making to establish protections for sage-grouse.

The sage-grouse rider is congressional overreach, creating an absurd constitutional conundrum in which the executive branch has been ordered to act by the judicial branch, but now the legislative branch has intervened to prevent the agency from meeting the deadlines.

The sage-grouse rider was inserted as part of backroom negotiations over the budget bill, undertaken in secret by a handful of lawmakers. This process shut out sage-grouse experts but enabled influence peddling by corporate interests. Money talks, by decree of the Supreme Court, and when politics is awash in corporate "free speech," the wealthiest industries have the loudest voice, and the opinions of everyday working people get drowned out.

The result was a gift to the fossil fuel industry, which saw fossil fuel spending balloon above recommended levels in the Department of Energy's, budget even as protections for imperiled wildlife were swept aside. It should come as no surprise that the industry that spends astronomical sums on campaign contributions and political advertising was able to exert its influence to get a dream outcome from the budgeting process, a victory for corporate greed and a major setback for wildlife conservation and healthy lands.

Our democracy works best when there are deadlines and accountability. This reckless act of Congress enables the oil and gas industry to run roughshod over one of the cornerstones of American democracy -- our federal environmental safeguards.

Partisan politics also played a key role in the legislative debacle. Right-wing fringe elements in Congress have long plotted to replace bothersome federal agencies and regulations with a free-for-all in which their corporate allies can operate with impunity, unimpeded by restrictions that protect the environment and the public interest. In blocking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from its most important priorities, the anti-federal interests scored a significant win.

While the fossil fuel industry and Tea Party efforts to dismantle federal environmental protections are the big winners in this stealth maneuver, the losers are wildlife, healthy lands and the American public. Sage-grouse are beloved across Western states, according to recent polling, and voters strongly support Endangered Species Act protections for the bird. Americans' love for wildlife and our nation's commitment to preventing the extinction of native species counted for little in this sorry congressional spectacle.

Unsatisfied with its own gridlock, Congress is now blocking a federal wildlife agency from doing its job as well. This battle will only get hotter as the Obama administration exercises its executive powers to get things done and Congress cooks up further roadblocks. "Pro" is the opposite of "con," and this year's skirmishes mark the onset of an epic battle between progress and Congress.

© 2023 The Hill