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Lawmakers seek overhaul of Endangered Species Act

Updated: 
February 4, 2014 - 9:58pm

Here’s a look at five species and how they’ve fared since being added to the list:

1. GRIZZLY BEAR

Grizzlies were listed as threatened in the Lower 48 states in 1975 after being nearly wiped out over their historical range. But the bruins have been coming back, particularly in and around Yellowstone National Park, where they number more than 700. They’re doing so well, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering removing federal protections for the Yellowstone grizzlies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. But some scientists warn against it, saying climate change has devastated the whitebark pine trees that provide a key food source for the bears. Another 1,000 grizzlies live outside of the Yellowstone area, while 30,000 of the bears in Alaska have never been listed as threatened.

2. GRAY WOLF

More than 6,000 gray wolves roam the Lower 48 states after they were wiped out in the Northern Rockies and only a small population was left in the Great Lakes by the mid-1990s. The federal government spent more than $100 million on wolf recovery, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing the predator from the endangered list across the United States, except for a small population of wolves in the Southwest. Yet despite the rebound, environmentalists point out the drop in wolf numbers in the Northern Rockies after Congress lifted federal protections there in 2011. Since then, wolf population numbers have declined 7 percent because of new hunting and trapping seasons in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

3. SPOTTED OWL

The northern spotted owl was listed as threatened in 1990 because of loss of old growth forest habitat to logging. Lawsuits led to establishment of millions of acres of reserves on national forests to protect not just the owl’s habitat, but that of threatened salmon and a host of other species. Despite the logging cutbacks, the owl has continued to decline by about 3 percent a year. Scientists have now identified the top threat to its survival as the invasion of the barred owl, a more aggressive and adaptable cousin that migrated across Canada from the East Coast and is driving spotted owls out of their territories. Last year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an experiment to remove up to 3,600 invasive barred owls from Oregon, Washington and Northern California to see if that will provide enough save havens to reverse the decline.

4. BALD EAGLE

The official symbol of the United States nearly became extinct through hunting and the widespread use of the pesticide DDT. In 1963, there were just 417 of the birds documented in the nation. More than $574 million was spent on the eagle’s recovery through 2007, the year its numbers reached about 10,000 mating pairs in the Lower 48 states and it was taken off the list. It is still illegal to kill a bald eagle under a 1940 law passed by Congress. The Fish and Wildlife Service says the bald eagle is now known or believed to be in all Lower 48 states, along with Alaska, where it was never considered threatened.

5. CARIBBEAN MONK SEAL

In contrast with success stories like the bald eagle, some species protected through the act go extinct anyway. The Caribbean monk seal, which once swam the waters off Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, was taken off the endangered species list in 2008 because of extinction. The only subtropical seal native to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico once numbered more than 250,000, but overhunting left the population unstable. The last confirmed sighting was in 1952.

BILLINGS, Mont. — Republicans in Congress on Tuesday called for an overhaul to the Endangered Species Act to curtail environmentalists’ lawsuits and give more power to states, but experts say broad changes to one of the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws are unlikely given the pervasive partisan divide in Washington, D.C.

A group of 13 GOP lawmakers representing states across the U.S. released a report proposing “targeted reforms” for the 40-year-old federal law, which protects imperiled plants and animals.

Proponents credit the law with staving off extinction for hundreds of species — from the bald eagle and American alligator to the gray whale. But critics contend the law has been abused by environmental groups seeking to restrict development in the name of species protection.

Led by Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, the Republicans want to amend the law to limit litigation from wildlife advocates that has resulted in protections for some species. And they want to give states more authority over imperiled species that fall within their borders.

Also among the recommendations from the group are increased scientific transparency, more accurate economic impact studies and safeguards for private landowners.

“The biggest problem is that the Endangered Species Act is not recovering species,” Hastings said. “The way the act was written, there is more of an effort to list (species as endangered or threatened) than to delist.”

Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in December 1973, the act has resulted in additional protections for more than 1,500 plants, insects, mammals, birds, reptiles and other creatures, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Republicans have seized on the fact that only 2 percent of protected species have been declared recovered — despite billions of dollars in federal and state spending.

Noah Greenwald, a wildlife advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, disputed the 2 percent figure as a “gross manipulation of facts” that ignores the hundreds of protected species now on the path to recovery.

The political hurdles for an overhaul of the law are considerable. The Endangered Species Act enjoys fervent support among many environmentalists, whose Democratic allies on Capitol Hill have thwarted past proposals for change.

Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, suggested Tuesday that Republicans appeared intent on gutting the law. He predicted the changes being sought would go nowhere in the Senate.

“There is no appetite to overturn the (Endangered Species Act),” DeFazio said.

Federal wildlife officials said they would not comment on Tuesday’s report until they have a chance to review it.

Throughout its history, the law has faced criticism from business interests, Republicans and others. They argue actions taken to shield at-risk species such as the northern spotted owl have severely hampered logging and other economic development.

Those complaints grew louder in recent months after federal wildlife officials agreed to consider protections for more than 250 additional species under settlement terms in lawsuits brought by environmental groups.

Included in the settlement was the greater sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that has been in decline across large portions of its 11-state Western range. A final decision on whether to protect sage grouse is due next year and could result in wide-ranging restrictions on oil and gas development, agriculture and other economic activity.

The endangered act was last amended in the 1980s. Given the current level of rancor between Democrats and Republicans, academics who track the law were skeptical that the latest calls for change would succeed.

“Both sides have enough power to prevent something happening that they don’t like. But nobody has enough power to pass anything,” said Dale Goble, an expert on the act who works as a law professor at the University of Idaho.

Goble added that the main reason some species linger for decades on the endangered list is a shortage of federal money to help pay for their recovery.

Vanderbilt Law School professor J.B. Ruhl said previous attempts to reform the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s and again last decade failed. Regardless of the merits of the latest proposal, Ruhl said the topic remains a “third rail” many politicians are unwilling to touch.