Energy/Environment First Look

Endangered Species Act: get ready for big changes, says GOP

Republican lawmakers are preparing to roll back the influence of the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the law is an unnecessary hindrance to economic development. 

The ground dwelling sage grouse has helped to fuel a long-simmering debate in the American West over the restrictions of the Endangered Species Act on ranchers and farmers. Under President-elect Donald Trump, Republicans see a new opportunity make changes to a law they contend has blocked economic development
Bob Wick/BLM/Reuters/File
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The Endangered Species Act may soon be, well, endangered. 

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, Republicans are reportedly getting ready to roll back the influence of the Endangered Species Act after contending for years that the law curbs economic development under the guise of conservation. Under the Obama administration, GOP lawmakers sponsored dozens of measures aimed at weakening the act, nearly all of which were blocked by Democrats and the White House or lawsuits from environmentalists. But now, as the United States enters an era of Republican control in both Congress and the White House, opponents of the ESA may get their way. 

"It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It's been used for control of the land," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, who "would love to invalidate" the law, as reported by the Associated Press. "We've missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has been hijacked." 

In its 44 years of existence, the law has been criticized for hindering drilling, logging, and other activities while enabling prolonged legal battles over certain species. It prohibits the hunting of wolves, angering farmers in a number of states who say the wild animals attack their livestock. And protection efforts for species including the Canada lynx, the lesser prairie chicken, and the salmon have hindered logging projects, oil and gas development, and efforts to reallocate water in California. 

In response, GOP lawmakers have proposed reforms including placing limits on lawsuits that have been used to maintain protections and force decisions on some species, and introducing a cap on how many species can be protected while giving states more input on the matter. 

But environmentalists say Endangered Species Act has played a vital role in the survival of many of the more than 1,600 plants and animals currently protected by the law. As Eva Botkin-Kowacki reported for The Christian Science Monitor in October: 

Species are going extinct about 1,000 times faster than if humans weren’t part of the equation, according to Stuart Pimm’s 2014 research published in the journal Science. As such, many scientists now proclaim that Earth is experiencing its sixth great extinction.

"I hate that we concentrate on all the gloom and despair," says Dr. Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, bemoaning his own research. "I think the story is that we are now becoming very successful at finding solutions. We’re learning how to do this craft we call conservation."

And the numbers suggest that he’s right.

Under the Obama administration, 28 endangered or threatened species have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered species list – more than under all other administrations combined since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law in 1973, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Decisions for dozens of species, such as the Pacific walrus and the North American wolverine, are set to take place this year. Many of these species could face increased risk if Republican reforms are implemented, experts say. 

"There's a lot of evidence that some species are conservation-reliant," J.B. Ruhl, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, told the AP. Political fights over some species have taken decades to resolve, he added, because recovering them from "the brink of extinction is a lot harder than we thought."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.