Congress is considering a series of bills that, if passed into law, would institute changes to the Endangered Species Act that could shift control of conservation measures to state and local governments, accelerate decisions about whether species need protecting, and limit courts’ power to overturn decisions to lift or loosen species protections, the Associated Press (AP) reports.
Many Democrats and wildlife advocates argue that the proposed changes will put the world’s biodiversity at risk. “The wildlife extinction package is an extreme and all-encompassing assault on the Endangered Species Act,” Bob Dreher, senior vice president of conservation programs at the nonprofit conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife, says in a statement posted by YubaNet.com. “These bills discard science, increasing the likelihood of harm to species and habitat, create hurdles to protecting species, and undermine citizen’s ability to enforce the law in court, while delegating authority for species management to states—or even corporations and individuals—that are ill-equipped to assume it.”
Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, tells the AP that preventing wildlife advocates from filing lawsuits that aim to restore protections is a slippery slope that could make the government unaccountable for its decisions to change a species conservation status.
The proposed amendments follow on the heels of a federal judge’s decision earlier this week (September 24) to reinstate protections for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, prohibiting planned hunts that would have allowed the culling of up to 23 grizzlies in Idaho and Wyoming this fall. This court decision would have been blocked if the new laws were in place.
“This ruling in Montana to me is the prime example of why Congress should modernize the Endangered Species Act,” Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee who drafted some of the new legislation, tells the AP. “The grizzly bear has been fully recovered for 10 years. Even the Obama administration said so.”
Republicans are also hoping to ease protections for gray wolves in the contiguous US. Like grizzly bears, gray wolves faced extinction in the early 1900s but have since rebounded thanks in large part to the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. Now, both species are a point of contention between wildlife advocates and farmers, who say that the predators are attacking livestock.
Meanwhile, a 60-day public comment period ended this week for proposed ESA changes, put forth by President Donald Trump’s administration in July, that would do away with automatic protections for threatened species and limit the use of habitat preservation as a conservation strategy. Researchers from around the country drafted two letters condemning the amendments, Reuters reports. One letter, to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, came from three organizations representing some 9,000 working biologists; the second letter was signed by 273 leading university scientists.
“This is completely disastrous for efforts to save species from extinction,” Duke University conservation ecologist Stuart Pimm tells Reuters.