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The Endangered Species Act Under Attack: Relentless Riders Rise Again

11 Jul 2016  |   Eva Drinkhouse

Tags: Wildlife

We are in the throes of appropriations season in Washington D.C. and this year one of the most strongly supported and effective laws to protect and conserve wildlife is under attack once again - the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA passed with overwhelming bipartisan support over four decades ago and is the strongest wildlife protection law in the United States, but legislators continually attempt to chip away at it and the environmental community is there to fight back at every step along the way.

This landmark law ensures that species will be treated as national treasures and that their management will be based on sound science rather than regional and state political preferences. Its stated goal is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend and it does so with an impressive 90% success rate. This means that 90% of the species listed as endangered by the ESA across the world are recovering according to the projected recovery rates declared in their recovery plans. And of all the species listed, 99% of them continue to survive due to the protections extended by the ESA. Some of the iconic species that would only exist in the pages of books, the halls of museums, and the enclosures of zoos were it not for the ESA include humpback whales, manatees, bald eagles, gray wolves, alligators, black bears, and grizzly bears.

Photo Credit: Andrewngo1760 (Flickr)

According to Earthjustice attorney and endangered species advocate Trent Orr, protecting these species is in everyone’s interest not only because of species’ intrinsic value and the possibility that they hold yet unknown keys to unlocking cures for diseases, but also because the decline of species indicates a dangerous environmental imbalance that threatens all species that rely on the environment, including us. When we protect these species and the habitats they live in, we also restore fundamental aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems that provide us with clean drinking water, more purified air, and protection against global climate change.

However, many special interests feel that the ESA unnecessarily impedes economic development. Since the mid 1990’s, those who profit from unregulated exploitation of natural resources such as timber, mining, livestock, and oil and gas have lead the charge in pushing legislators to undermine the ESA year after year. To illustrate how this works, look to the Endangered Species Act Congressional Working Group of 2013. While this group convened in the name of increasing the effectiveness of the ESA for people and wildlife, in reality it was nothing more than a completely partisan anti-ESA caucus bought and paid for by extractive industries. Those participating members that were re-elected in 2014 received over $943,000 in campaign cash from oil and gas interests.

Photo Credit: Psyberartist (Flickr)

Currently, protected species are more vulnerable than ever due to dangerous and radical Republican congressional leadership in committees in charge of our environment and natural resources. Representative Rob Bishop (R) of Utah, sworn enemy of land and wildlife conservation, has promised to upend the ESA as Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, while Senator Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, notorious climate change denier who brags about wearing boots made from endangered reptiles, echoes his efforts as head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 211 of 281 legislative attacks on the ESA have occurred in this anti-ESA political climate spanning the past five years. In the current 114th Congress, as many as 87 attacks were proposed in 2015 and there have already been 26 attacks in 2016 alone.

In the past, lawmakers have attempted to undermine (under the guise of reform) the ESA directly through stand-alone legislation. Now that the act’s detractors have realized that these special interest proposals have not succeeded in becoming law on their own merits, they have evolved their tactics. Since 2011, ESA opponents have started to rely on an underhanded strategy of sneaking anti-ESA riders into must-pass budget and spending bills, thus leveraging intense pressure to secure government funding to force Congress to approve measures that have zero chance of being signed into law on their own merits. These riders would effectively cripple the ESA. By defunding ESA programs, Congress is bleeding the ESA dry by wiping out its funding rather than directly undermining the law.

These battles are playing out in the House and Senate right now. The FY17 Interior Appropriations Bills currently being considered contain several ESA-specific riders among a flurry of other anti-environment provisions. In the House Department of Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, there is a proposal to remove protections for the Greater Sage-grouse, a move to weaken protections for salmon and delta smelt in California, and a repeated move to delist gray wolves in the Great Lakes region and Wyoming as well as a request for the preemption of judicial review of those particular wolf delisting decisions. While the Senate version of the bill contains fewer anti-environment riders, it still seeks to do considerable damage to environmental protections. One rider aims to block the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service from prohibiting aggressive hunting of bears and wolves in Alaska’s wildlife refuges. Another effectively delists the Lesser Prairie Chicken as well as gray wolves in the Great Lakes region and Wyoming.

Photo Credit: B_Bartel (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

While representatives market these riders as a means to fulfill their promises of cutting government spending, the real effect is to weaken laws and programs that not only protect our wildlife, but also ensure public health through clean air and water. Including these riders amounts to playing political games with what is meant to be based on sound science. When these riders, often called “poison pills” or “veto bait” are inappropriately included in budget and spending bills, it inevitably jeopardizes the process of funding the government and adds to the risks of a government shutdown. And that’s not the only problem. If these riders are included in the final bills and signed into law, they put our ecosystems, our health, and imperiled wildlife at risk.

Without the continued protections under a strong Endangered Species Act, our children may very well grow up in a world vastly different than the one we have known, a world without even the slightest chance of seeing amazing animals like wolves, moose, bears, and salmon in the wild. We cannot simply stand by and trade at-risk wildlife for more development and harmful fossil fuel extraction. I hope you will join us in decrying attacks on the ESA, as well as other anti-environment attacks, and call on your legislators to support the continued use of sound science-based wildlife management.

Cover Photo Credit: Princess Lodges (Flickr)

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