GOP Working Group Recommends Endangered Species Act Reforms

On February 4, 2013, a Republican Congressional working group led by Representative Doc Hastings (Washington – 4th District), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee,  issued a formal report recommending the overhaul of the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

The ESA was signed into law in 1973 and has faced criticism from business and industry since its inception. The current action by Hastings and other republicans appears to be in response to recent settlements between federal wildlife officials and environmental groups that could result in ESA protections for hundreds of new species. One of the hot-button species included in these settlements is the greater sage grouse. The sage grouse has an 11-state western range that includes North and South Dakota and Wyoming. ESA listing could directly impact oil and gas development, large scale agriculture and other economic activities within the range.

Hastings’s group received hundreds of comments from outside individuals and ESA experts. In addition, the Working Group reviewed formal written testimony submitted by more than 50 witnesses appearing at nine full and subcommittee ESA hearings of the House Natural Resources Committee over the last three years. The executive summary of the report summarized the overall findings as follows:

“In short, the Working Group found that the ESA, while well-intentioned from the beginning, must be updated and modernized to ensure its success where it matters most: outside of the courtroom and on-the-ground. A two percent recovery rate of endangered species is simply not acceptable.”

The two percent recovery rate refers to the number of species that have been removed from the ESA list in its 40-year history. According to Hastings, “the biggest problem is that the Endangered Species Act is not recovering species. The way the Act is written, there is more of an effort to list that to delist.”

The primary goals of the proposed reform include: 1) ensuring greater transparency and prioritization of ESA with a focus on species recovery and delisting; 2) reducing ESA litigation and encouraging settlement reform; 3) empowering States, tribes, local governments and private landowners on ESA decisions affecting them and their property; and 4) requiring more transparency and accountability of ESA data and science.

Numerous prior attempts to reform the ESA have failed and the Act has not been amended since the 1980s. Several attempts in the last twenty years have simply failed to gain sufficient support. The Act enjoys fervent support among the environmental community and many of their democratic allies in Washington. Despite the merits of Hastings’s proposal and the apparent need for certain changes in the structure of the Act, reforms are unlikely to move forward without some support from democrats, which will be hard to come by. We will continue to monitor this issue.

The Report, Findings and Recommendations of the Hastings working group is published online here.

Marc Bryson concentrates his practice in the areas of environmental law, administrative law, and energy law. He regularly advises industrial, municipal, and oil and gas clients on matters involving permitting and regulatory requirements for water and wastewater, solid and hazardous waste, and other environmental and regulatory matters.
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