ST. GEORGE – Efforts are afoot by the Trump administration and some congressional Republicans to enact changes to the Endangered Species Act that officials say will simplify and modernize the landmark wildlife policy.
“Reforming the Endangered Species Act is a good thing and absolutely necessary,” Rep. Chris Stewart told St. George News Tuesday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic Administration Administration last week issued a joint statement outlining proposed changes to the act.
Among those changes would be dropping a blanket rule that extends the same level of protection to threatened species that endangered species currently enjoy. Future at-risk species listing proposals will be examined on a more case-by-case basis. The policy change would not apply to species already listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“No two species are the same, and so by crafting species-specific … rules for threatened species, we can tailor appropriate protections using best available science according to each species’ biological needs,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan said.
Other proposed changes include revisions that could limit how “critical habitat” for threatened and endangered plants and animal is designated, as well as the examination of specific factors surrounding how future species may be listed and delisted.
Currently, federal agencies that enforce the Endangered Species Act are directed to make decisions based on scientific data alone. Under the proposed policy overhaul, those agencies could also consider economic data.
The proposal would remove the phrase,“without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination,” which supporters say limits the scope of what federal agencies may consider.
“In removing the phrase … the (Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA) are not suggesting that all listing determinations will include a presentation of economic or other impacts,” the 38-page proposed policy document reads. “Rather, there may be circumstances where such impacts are referenced while ensuring that biological considerations remain the sole basis for listing determinations.”
Stewart characterized the potential consideration of economic factors as “absolutely necessary.”
“I’m not suggesting we let a species go extinct because of the economic impact,” he said, “but it’s fair to measure the economic impacts and understand what they could be. … When you understand what the impacts can be, it brings urgency to fixing the problem.”
As an example, Stewart pointed to the Utah prairie dog, which has caused issues in Iron County and elsewhere in Southern Utah. The prairie dog is one of 18 species in Utah listed as threatened or endangered.
If the economic impacts of listing the burrowing rodent had been better understood years ago, it may not have turned into an ongoing issue and headache for local residents, Stewart said.
The prairie dog has come to be seen as a pest by some Iron County residents and officials due to damage they’ve caused to public and private property. Those looking to either sell or develop property have also been frustrated due to the protected species appearing on their land.
Like other members of Congress who have sought to reform the Endangered Species Act, Stewart has proposed related legislation. In 2014 he introduced a bill focused on getting the federal government to count listed species found on both public and private land.
“Federal land in Iron County is a bunch of sagebrush and rock where there’s no cover or water, so it’s not great habitat for the prairie dog,” Stewart said. “So where do they go? They go onto private lands where there’s grass and alfalfa and there’s the cover they need.”
A majority of the prairie dogs dwell on private land and because of that their numbers are not counted toward species recovery under the Endangered Species Act.
“They’re continuing to say the prairie dogs are endangered when they are not,” he said.
Stewart also said he would like to give state and local governments more say and involvement in managing the conservation of at-risk species.
Not everyone is pleased with the proposed changes, however.
The proposals have drawn condemnation from Democrats and wildlife advocates.
Critics say the moves would speed extinctions in the name of furthering an anti-environment agenda. Species currently under consideration for protections are considered especially at risk, including the North American wolverine and the monarch butterfly.
“It essentially turns every listing of a species into a negotiation,” said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity. “They could decide that building in a species’ habitat or logging in trees where birds nest doesn’t constitute harm.”
Conflicts have arisen in the decades since the 1973 passage of the Endangered Species Act, ranging from disruptions to logging to protect spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, to attacks on livestock that have accompanied the restoration of gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains and upper Midwest.
Some species, including gray wolves and grizzly bears, retained protection for years after meeting their original recovery goals, often due to court orders resulting from environmentalists’ lawsuits.
More than 700 animals and almost 1,000 plants in the U.S. are shielded by the law. Hundreds more are under consideration for protection.
Fewer than 100 species have been taken off the threatened and endangered lists, either because they were deemed recovered or, in at least 10 cases, went extinct.
The administration’s proposals follow longstanding criticism of the Endangered Species Act by business groups and some members of Congress. Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation to enact broad changes to the law, saying it hinders economic activities while doing little to restore species.
The federal government is seeking public input on the proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act. Comments are due by Sept. 24 and can be submitted through Regulations.gov
To comment on any of these rules electronically, click on the links below. Then click the “Comment Now” button:
- Revision of the Regulations for Listing Species and Designating Critical Habitat – Docket Number: FWS-HQ-ES-2018-0006
- Revision of the Regulations for Prohibitions to Threatened Wildlife and Plants – Docket Number: FWS-HQ-ES-2018-0007
- Revision of Regulations for Interagency Cooperation – Docket Number: FWS-HQ-ES-2018-0009
Other members of Utah’s congressional delegation also shared their thoughts on the proposed policy reform and the Endangered Species Act in general:
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee
It’s no secret that modernizing the Endangered Species Act is long overdue. DOI’s proposed rules incorporate public input, innovative science and best practices to improve efficiency and certainty for federal agencies and the public. I commend Secretary Zinke and Deputy Secretary Bernhardt for their excellent leadership on this issue and look forward to working with my colleagues to enshrine these actions into law.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah
Too often some of the federal government’s well intentioned environmental laws blindly regulate animal habitats without any regard for rural Utah communities. The Utah prairie dog, for example, has bounced back from endangered status but is still managed under the same regulations that it was when it was endangered. This animal has ruined crops, homes, and even cemeteries in some rural Utah towns but residents can’t do anything to stop them. Any step that seeks to rebalance environmental protection with the needs of rural communities is a step in the right direction.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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