Monday, July 24, 2017

ESA Reform Bills in front of House Natural Resources Committee

Washington—Western ranchers are keeping a close eye on a bill that would delist gray wolves in the Great Lakes region.

The bill give states a larger role in listing species and cap attorney fees awarded to Endangered Species Act litigants.

The legislation had a hearing last week in front of the House Natural Resources Committee and is designed to weaken the ESA by Republican lawmakers.

They say current law cripples economic progress and does little more than prevent species extinction instead of actually helping the species recovery.

Republican Chair Rob Bishop of Utah, said that “in coordination with our colleagues in the Senate and this administration,” the five bills discussed at the hearing will “lay the foundation for ESA reform.”

The panel's ranking member, Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz, says the bills are just “warmed over” proposals from 2014 and represent “only a small sample of the 200-plus legislative proposals to weaken the ESA that have been floated since Republicans took control of the House in 2011.”

Following the hearing, Grijalva said he expects the committee majority would try to kick the bills out of committee and send them to the House floor, but says at this point he doesn't know when it will happen. He also said he and other Democrats on the committee want to get more public input on the bills.

“We have public opinion on our side and will also begin to deal directly with the Senate early to engage them,” Grijalva said. “We have some pretty strong advocates in the Senate.”

Asked about plans to move the bills through committee, a committee spokesperson said the bills “target specific areas of the law that are identified as failing” but that other ESA-related bills might be addressed “as the House develops broader based reforms.”

Four of the bills address domestic ESA issues, while one would ease restrictions on captive breeding of animals by preventing nonnative species found in the U.S. from being treated as threatened or endangered under the ESA.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., spoke in favor of H.R. 424, which would reinstate 2011 delisting rules for gray wolves in the Great Lakes region. A federal judge reversed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision in 2014, which Peterson said “suddenly put farmers and ranchers throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan in a very difficult situation. Right now its illegal for a farmer to shoot a gray wolf thats actively attacking cattle or pets. When attacks occur, my constituents are forced to choose between following the law or protecting their livestock and livelihoods.”

The bill is backed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, Minnesota Farmers Union, the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and all sent letters of support to the committee.

The bill also would “protect Wyoming from further judicial overreach,” Peterson said. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that wolves in Wyoming should be returned to state control, reversing a ruling by a district court judge who had agreed with environmental groups that the Fish and Wildlife Service's 2014 delisting rule was unlawful.

Another bill, H.R. 1274, introduced by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., would require that FWS and NMFS consider all data submitted by states, tribes, and local governments, as the “best scientific and commercial data available,” the standard imposed by the law, when making listing and critical habitat decisions.

Sheehan recommended modifying the bill to require that FWS simply consider the data when making its decisions. Automatically classifying data submitted by states, tribes and local authorities as the best available “without regard to its quality, would be a significant departure from scientific integrity standards,” Sheehan said.

H.R. 3131, introduced by Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., would cap attorney fee awards in ESA cases at $125 an hour. Republican lawmakers have for years attacked environmental groups that sue frequently using the ESA citizen-suit provision, claiming that they are using the law to bankroll their organizations. The bill also would require a litigant to “prevail” in order to receive attorney fees. Under the ESA, courts can award litigations whenever such costs are deemed “appropriate.”

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