January 23, 2019
Tara Lewis

The past few years have been tough for wildlife, particularly endangered species. In the 115th Congress, we saw over 110 attempts to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), our nation’s most effective law for protecting wildlife in danger of extinction. Anti-wildlife members took aim at species like the gray wolf and grizzly bear and put wild places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the crosshairs for oil and gas development. Our new Congress, the 116th, convened on January 3, 2019 and with it will come critical changes in leadership and new members. Few things are certain, but we do know the stakes for wildlife continue to be high. Here are six of the key issues we will be keeping our eyes on.

1. Anti-ESA Appropriations Riders

One concerning trend is the use of appropriations “riders” to harm the ESA. A rider is a provision that is attached an unrelated must-pass bill, usually because the provision is controversial and would not survive public scrutiny or a floor vote in the full House or Senate as a stand-alone bill. The FY 2019 Interior Appropriations Act, largely negotiated last December, initially included several riders that would block ESA protections for the imperiled sage-grouse, lesser prairie chicken, and Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. Many riders even blocked judicial review of decisions to delist species, undermining the ability of Americans to seek out justice and defend our civil rights, public health, and environment. Scientists, not Congress, should be making decisions about which species need protection.

All but one of these riders — the greater sage-grouse rider, which prohibits the listing of the species and has been included in the bill since 2014, has been removed from the final version of the Interior appropriations bill the House is currently attempting to pass in its effort to end the shutdown. We will be keeping a close eye on further attempts to weaken the ESA using riders to the 2020 Interior Appropriations bill and continue to urge Congress to adopt clean legislation, and especially removing the sage-grouse rider once and for all.

2. Wholesale Rewrites of the Endangered Species Act

Attacks to the ESA in the form of bills to undermine the law through wholesale rewrites have popped up with more regularity in the past few years. Most notably, in July 2018, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) introduced the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 2018 discussion draft. The proposed amendments would have a devastating impact on the ESA by giving states overriding control over federal programs to conserve species and shielding decisions to list and delist species from judicial review. The proposed bill would also impose burdensome procedural requirements on federal officials designed to stall implementation of the Act. Supported almost entirely by western development interests, this radical weakening of the law is not the bipartisan measure its sponsor claims.

As Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Barrasso continues to hold hearings aimed at garnering support for dismantling the ESA under the guise of modernization. He will retain the Chairman position in the new Congress. We continue to watch for this damaging proposed bill’s introduction and remind lawmakers that the ESA has helped to ensure the survival of ninety-nine percent of its listed species; the Act as written works.

3. Changes in Leadership

A shuffling of the decks in Committee leadership will certainly be on Defenders radar. Senator Inhofe (R-OK) will take the reins as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the committee responsible for Defense Reauthorization bills. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2019 contained numerous controversial, anti-environmental provisions completely unrelated to military readiness, including provisions that would have prohibited the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the greater sage-grouse and lesser prairie chicken for at least 10 years, and immediately and permanently delisting the endangered American burying beetle. Amendments were also introduced to undermine the Marine Mammal Protection Act by requiring the Department of Defense to obtain authorizations from the National Marine Fisheries Service every 10 years, instead of the current five-year requirement, for activities that can harm marine mammals.

The committee’s influence extends from the legislative process all the way through the enactment of bills into law, and the chairman has the power to influence the Senate’s deliberation on legislation. Inhofe has a longstanding history of working to undermine the ESA and has been a vocal proponent of attempts to weaken the Act by gutting it through riders, amendments, and bills. Defenders is bracing for the likelihood that these attacks will continue and is preparing to defend against them.

Fortunately, unlike the Senate, all chairmen of committees who oversee environmental issues in the House of Representatives are, for the most part, environmental champions.

4. Using Infrastructure to Advance an Anti-ESA Agenda

Infrastructure legislation will be a top priority for the new Congress. The current highway authorizing law expires in 2020, and the Trump administration has so far been unsuccessful in advancing its own infrastructure plan this year. Planning for infrastructure is predicted to be a source of bipartisan cooperation, but in the past infrastructure legislation has served as a vehicle for anti-ESA riders and policies. In the last Congress, an alarming number of bills were introduced to exempt individual projects from ESA requirements and waive countless other federal environmental laws that protect wildlife and wild places. Defenders will continue to monitor these efforts and fight for the inclusion of wildlife friendly provisions in any infrastructure package.

5. Fully Funding the ESA

With a new Congress also comes hope for new opportunities to fund the ESA. Although the ESA’s framework has a proven track record of the success, the Act itself is woefully underfunded and lacks the programmatic funding to be fully implemented. Funding proposals should focus on federal programs to conserve listed species, and to the extent state funding is increased, this funding again should focus primarily on listed endangered and threatened species. Rather than focusing on weakening a law that works, Congress should improve the Act’s implementation by fully funding recovery efforts for endangered species.

6. Trump’s Destructive Border Wall

In addition, it is important to note that as this article is posted, part of the government is shutdown, including key agencies that conserve and manage our wildlife, public lands and imperiled species. Wildlife and habitat and the dedicated federal employees who work to protect them are being harmed and held hostage by President Trump in exchange for an ineffective and destructive border wall. Defenders of Wildlife continues to aggressively oppose any attempts to fund construction of a wall.


Tara Lewis

Tara Lewis

Senior Legislative Analyst
Tara Lewis is a senior legislative analyst on the government relations team, where she primarily focuses on issues relating to the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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