Endangered Species Act in the Crosshairs

Earlier this month a group of House lawmakers, most of them vocal critics of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), released a report recommending that the iconic 40-year-old law be “updated and modernized.” While the report raises a few legitimate questions about species recovery and the role of litigation, the report’s findings and recommendations appear primarily designed as a pretense for legislation to weaken the ESA.

The recommendations seek to narrow the ESA’s scope, place greater emphasis on economic and landowner considerations, give states more control over ESA determinations, limit judicial review, impose high hurdles for listing species, burden the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with costly studies, and discourage critical habitat designations.

Forty years ago the ESA passed Congress with an overwhelming bi-partisan majority  (92-0 in Senate, 390-12 in House) and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Contrary to the claims of its critics, the ESA has been effective, meeting or exceeding recovery plan goals 90 percent of the time. The ESA has been instrumental in the recovery of iconic species such as the Bald Eagle, Gray Wolf, Whooping Crane, Grizzly Bear, Peregrine Falcon, Southern Sea Otter, Red Wolf and American Alligator.

The Report’s criticism that the ESA has not resulted in enough delistings misses the mark. The first measure of success is preventing extinction. The second is population recovery, which can take many decades. Delisting is the last step, and must be done prudently with an eye towards remaining threats. Gray Wolf populations in the Northern Rockies and the upper Midwest were delisted in 2011 and are now in decline—predominantly due to aggressive hunting that has claimed over 2,600 wolves in just three years.

While it is certainly possible to make the ESA more effective, this report will most likely prompt legislation to weaken it. We will be diligently watching for new ESA legislation and will keep you updated.

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