Renewed Congressional Assault on Endangered Species

Robert Dewey, Vice President of Government Relations

We knew it was coming, and now it’s here. The multi-front attack on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) initiated in the last Congress has been renewed with a vengeance. Although the current Congress is less than five months old, more than a dozen bills and amendments have already been drafted to undermine our nation’s landmark wildlife protection law and conservation of the creatures it so effectively saves.

Piping plover with chicks

Piping plovers are one of several bird species that benefit from the beach’s protection.

One attack advancing quickly in both the House and Senate (H.R. 819 and S. 486) would overturn urgently needed and highly effective protections for federally endangered nesting turtles and threatened shorebirds at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, located along the North Carolina coast. Protections from off-road vehicles were established by the National Park Service after an extensive public process, with input from a variety of stakeholders. There is significant evidence that the Park Service’s protections are working: wildlife populations have rebounded, visitation to the seashore has increased and the local economy is improving. Nevertheless, members of the North Carolina congressional delegation are pressing this damaging legislation, which to date has passed out of committee in the House and is likely to be considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June.

In March, the Senate budget resolution, which establishes the blueprint for all the federal government spending, became a magnet for anti-wildlife amendments. In all, five separate damaging amendments were developed, including ones to block particular species from being added to the endangered species list or to force their removal. Both the iconic greater sage-grouse and the Gunnison sage-grouse were a particular focus of these amendments. Fortunately, following strong opposition from Defenders of Wildlife and other groups, all but one of these efforts ultimately failed.

kit fox

San Joaquin kit fox

The House and Senate farm bills have also become an intense legislative battleground for preserving imperiled species and the ESA. The Senate may soon vote on an amendment to the farm bill by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) that would delay the listing of the lesser prairie chicken, an imperiled species that has already been waiting fifteen years for federal protection. Other amendments that have been proposed would remove Endangered Species Act protections from species found only in one state, such as the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, San Joaquin kit fox and key deer, and require burdensome economic analysis before protecting species.

Meanwhile the House farm bill (H.R. 1947), now awaiting floor consideration, would bar the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from taking action to protect endangered species from harmful pesticides without the voluntary agreement of a pesticide manufacturer. Another provision would result in the direct application of pesticides into streams and rivers without any oversight under the Clean Water Act. Commonly used pesticides continue to harm endangered salmon, frogs, sea turtles and pollinating bees, and kill more than 67 million birds every year. By continuing to rely on the ESA’s science-based procedures and following the recommendations of expert biologists, the EPA can prevent the unnecessary poisoning of endangered creatures and preserve the economic benefits that those animals provide.

As if this record pace of attacks wasn’t enough, some members of the House recently announced the formulation of a new Endangered Species Working Group composed of numerous legislators known to be hostile to the Act. We are bracing ourselves for the damaging legislative proposals this group may propose.

Just months into the new Congress, it is clear that we will have our work cut out for us in defending endangered species. These recent developments make our new Conservation Crossroads campaign all the more important. If you haven’t already joined our expanded effort to recover listed species and defend the ESA, please consider doing so. Given the current challenges facing endangered species, we need all the help we can get to protect the 2,000 species that depend on the ESA for their very survival and recovery.