Republican critics of the Endangered Species Act in Congress have drafted legislation hedging the government’s obligation to take all necessary steps to bring back to robust health any species on the brink of extinction.
The draft envisions more limited government obligations: ensuring that the status of an endangered plant or animal gets no worse and helping to make it better.
Representatives of environmental groups who have seen the draft legislation said that the change, achieved by redefining the act’s interpretation of “conservation,” would severely undercut the law.
The draft measure, said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, “takes a wrecking ball to the whole Endangered Species Act” by changing its mission, disabling enforcement tools and loosening controls on agencies like the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The draft legislation permits compensation … when a property owner shows that a government action diminishes a property’s value by at least 50 percent.
On the issue of what constitutes the “best available science” for making and supporting decisions under the law, the draft measure takes the unusual step of giving one scientific method preference over another. It calls for “empirical data” — which can be hard to obtain when a species’s numbers are small and scattered — to be used when possible. More common currently are studies based on statistical models of a species’s number, range and viability.
The draft legislation also sets new restrictions for mapping the territory considered essential for the recovery of an endangered species. It would limit such territory, called “critical habitat,” to areas currently occupied by the species; the law now allows for the inclusion of a larger portion of the species’s historic range. In the new proposal, expansion of the current range is possible only if that range is inadequate to prevent the species’s extinction.
As I’ve discussed before, the Endangered Species Act isn’t perfect, but it is an important tool. Some species can’t be recovered fully, but some can, and in many cases, the only way to know which is which is to do the work.
It sounds like this new bill would take away the ability to restore habitat, to undertake broad conservation activities in unoccupied critical habitat, and reduce the discretion of land managers to move endangered populations toward sustainable levels. This is all bad news, since most species are endangered because of inadequate habitat. Preserving them long-term requires designation of critical habitat that isn’t occupied.
That’s dumb. Write to your congresscritter today and let them know you’re worried. The earlier you contact them, the better chance that they’ll be able to shape this.