By Michael Halpern, Program Manager, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists
Gut the science. That’s how this Congress intends to undermine our nation’s environmental and public health laws. Most of the action over the past few years has been in the House, but tomorrow, a Senate committee will consider eight bills that would hack away at the Endangered Species Act. This is the first Senate hearing on endangered species in years, so it’s worth taking a look at all of the ways that Congress is trying to make this insanely popular law ineffective without having the courage to scrap it.
Why is the Endangered Species Act successful? Because it is grounded in reliance on the best available science. So let’s look at the different ways that Congress wants to take science out of the equation:
Allow politics to determine which species are deserving of protection. The law is designed to be resilient to politics: science, and science alone, is supposed to determine what species make it on the list. Then other factors can be considered when a plan is put together to conserve a species. But a new bill in the House would require economic considerations to be taken into account in listing decisions.
Reduce agency effectiveness by requiring more study with fewer resources. Given federal budget woes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) can’t even keep up with its current mandate—scores of species are considered candidate species waiting for evaluation. The Senate’s Common Sense in Species Protection Act of 2015 legislation would require additional economic analyses of the effects of all actions, creating more work without any more money.
Demand excessive disclosure of information in the name of “transparency.” The Senate’s 21st Century Endangered Species Transparency Act would require the government to publish massive amounts of raw scientific data instead of the current data summary when it makes decisions about the protection of species. This would not only create more unfunded costs for the agency–it would also make it considerably easier for poachers to find out exactly where species can be found. It would also require the release of unpublished scientific data, discouraging independent scientists from contributing their research to the government for consideration.
Require the government to consider bad science. Among other things, a bill in the Senate (S. 736) tells federal wildlife agencies to consider all data submitted by state, tribal, or county governments as the “best scientific and commercial data available”—even if it hasn’t gone through peer review or is scientifically shoddy. More hurdles, less work.
Allow short-term economic interests to trump science in protecting a species’ habitat. The Act requires the government to designate critical habitat that is necessary for a species to live and reproduce. This is, as you might expect, essential to the survival of a species. But the “Common Sense” bill would prohibit the Secretary of the Interior from designating critical habitat based on the best available science, instead requiring the department to prioritize short-term economic interests (such as oil and gas extraction or logging).
Single out specific species when protection threatens powerful interests. Congress has made a habit of going after individual species that some don’t like. There are three House bills—count em, one, two, three—to remove the grey wolf from the endangered species list. There’s one to prevent the protection of the northern long-eared bat. There’s another that singles out the sage grouse. If the wolves and the sage grouse have this difficult of a time, imagine what kind of chance the less cute and cuddly animals will have in a Congress hell-bent on eviscerating our nation’s bedrock science-based laws.
Unfortunately, Pandora’s box was opened a few years ago when environmentalists supported an agreement to delist the wolf in several states, temporarily forgetting that wolves don’t pay attention to road signs. That agreement was eventually overturned in court.
Exempt the most localized species from the law. The deceptively-named “Native Species Protection Act” would prevent the government from protecting any species that is currently found in only one state. A protection act that prohibits protection. Nice work, Congress!
So you’d think the Obama administration would be pushing back hard on this, right? Well, not necessarily. While it’s true that the administration issued a veto threat against the process bills, it allowed a sage grouse rider to attach to a December budget bill.
More troubling are signals that some in the Obama administration are not that enthusiastic about implementing the law. When testifying before the House Natural Resources Committee, FWS Director Dan Ashe didn’t exactly defend critical habitat. The relevant exchange starts at 31:00:
Ashe: When we designate critical habitat, we are complying with the law. The law requires when we list a species that we consider the designation of critical habitat.
Rep. McClintock: It reminds me of a Dickens comment from Mr. Bumble, “If that is the law the law is a (sic) ass, perhaps we should change it.”
Ashe: Well if you decide to change it…then I would implement the law. But as it’s written today, I have to designate critical habitat I have only very limited exceptions that I can apply.
Rep. McClintock: We’ll look forward to working with you then, on those changes.
This. Is. Not. Helpful. If the FWS director won’t stand up for critical habitat, it’s more likely that bills like the Common Sense in Species Protection Act will pass.
All of these bills, of course, are very similar to other anti-science legislation that if signed into law would undermine all public health, safety, and environmental laws well beyond the Endangered Species Act. The administration has been strong in opposing this radical onslaught of legislation on other issues, and should do so for endangered species as well.
It’s open season on these species. And it’s open season on the science.