Republicans see an opportunity to roll back the Endangered Species Act, which has become one of the government’s most powerful conservation tools. The GOP contends the act has been used by wildlife advocates to block economic development and to hinder drilling, logging and other activities. Over the past eight years, Republican lawmakers have sponsored dozens of measures aimed at curtailing the landmark law. Almost all were blocked by Democrats and the White House or lawsuits from environmentalists. The 1973 act was ushered though Congress nearly unanimously, in part to stave off extinction of the national symbol, the bald eagle. Reforms proposed by Republicans include placing limits on lawsuits that have been used to maintain protections for some species and to force a decision on others. Republicans also want to adopt a cap on how many species can be protected and to give states a greater say in the process.
Wildlife advocates are bracing for changes that could make it harder to add species to the protected list and to usher them through to recovery. Dozens are due for decisions this year, including the Pacific walrus and the North American wolverine, two victims of potential habitat loss due to climate change.
“Any species that gets in the way of a congressional initiative or some kind of development will be clearly at risk,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former Fish and Wildlife Service director under President Bill Clinton. “The political lineup is as unfavorable to the Endangered Species Act as I can remember.”
More than 1,600 plants and animals in the U.S. are now shielded by the law. Hundreds more are under consideration for protections. Republicans complain that fewer than 70 have recovered and had protections lifted.
“That tension just continues to expand,” said Jason Shogren, professor of natural resource conservation at the University of Wyoming. “Like a pressure cooker, every now and then, you’ve got to let out some steam or it’s really going to blow.”
Congress reconvened last week with two critics of the law holding key Senate leadership positions — Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso as the incoming chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski as chairwoman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Spokesman Mike Danylak said Barrasso will seek to “strengthen and modernize” the management of endangered species but offered no specifics.
Barrasso’s predecessor, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, suggested in an interview that one species should be removed from the list every time another is added. Another Republican, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, said he wants to limit applications for protections to one species at a time.
In the House, Rep. Tom McClintock of California, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands, said he wants to ease logging restrictions in national forests to reduce tree density blamed for catastrophic wildfires.
Some Democrats, too, have been frustrated with the law: Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson and two other Democrats joined 11 Republicans last week on a bill to end protections for wolves in the Great Lakes and Wyoming.
Simply by striking a few key words from the law, it could be transformed from a tool to protect huge areas of habitat for imperiled species into little more than limits on hunting for protected animals, said J.B. Ruhl, a Vanderbilt University law professor considered a leading expert on the act.
Trump’s position is unclear. A strong advocate for energy development, he has lamented environmental policies he says hinder drilling. But his appointment of Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary was seen by some conservationists as a signal that Trump will support protections for public lands to the benefit of fish and wildlife.
The Trump transition team did not respond to requests for comment. The incoming administration already has immigration, the health care law repeal and infrastructure improvements atop its agenda.
If the administration or Congress wants to gut the law, “they certainly can do it,” Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau said. “The real question with the Endangered Species Act is where does it rank?”
Advocates and senior Obama administration officials argue the law’s success is best measured by extinctions avoided — for 99 percent of protected species, including black-footed ferrets, whooping cranes, American crocodiles and hundreds of others.
“There’s a lot of evidence that some species are conservation-reliant,” Ruhl said. Political fights over certain species have dragged out for decades, he added, because recovering them from “the brink of extinction is a lot harder than we thought.”
Endangered Species Act 101
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the strongest and most important federal law protecting imperiled wildlife and plants. For nearly 40 years, the ESA has helped prevent the extinction of our nation’s wildlife treasures, including beloved American icons such as the bald eagle, the Florida manatee and the California condor.
Less than one percent of the more than 2,000 plants and animals protected by the Act worldwide have ever been formerly delisted due to extinction – an astonishing success rate. The Endangered Species Act also benefits people by maintaining healthy natural systems that provide us with clean air and water, food, medicines and other products that we all need to live healthy lives. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to be good stewards of the environment and leave behind a legacy of protecting endangered species and the special places they call home.