Irrigation Leader: Reforming the Endangered Species Act

By:  U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe
Irrigation Leader

Over 40 years ago, the well-intentioned Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into law to provide for the conservation of species and the ecosystems on which these species depend. Since then, the ESA has been hijacked by environmentalists intent on abusing this legislation to pursue their own agendas.

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) engaged in closed-door settlements after being sued by environmental groups over which species would be listed. These sue-and-settle tactics, a hallmark of the Obama administration, eventually lead to clandestine meetings and an agreement whereby FWS would consider, and ultimately list, hundreds more species at the direction of these groups.

Despite repeated requests from Congress, FWS has failed to provide documentation of this surreptitious activity, leaving us to speculate about collusion between environmental groups and the Obama administration. FWS continually touts the importance of science and data-based decisionmaking, but these settlements raise the question of who drives ESA listings and what the basis for those decisions are.

The administration likes to tout that it has delisted more species than any other administration, but it conveniently fails to acknowledge that the species recovery rate hovers at a mere 2 percent. The administration glosses over the minor detail that while 12 species have been delisted, hundreds more have been listed and hundreds more remain to be considered. That is the principal problem. And yet, the federal government still manages to spend billions of dollars each year on what it claims is species conservation.

It’s clear that the ESA isn’t failing because of a lack of money; it is failing because the budget is not being used for recovery. With no choice but to focus resources on listing species, as a result of lawsuits from Reforming the ESA crony environmentalists only interested in maximizing their bottom line, FWS is unable to focus resources on conservation.

These lawsuits also force FWS to designate habitats for species in a way that serves environmental groups, when really, habitats should be designated based on a comprehensive understanding of the species and its surroundings. The ESA has become nothing more than an ATM for environmental groups. The president’s notorious and ongoing disregard for sound science and a preoccupation with activist groups means that groups are able to profit handsomely from these sue-and-settle victories through enhanced fundraising activities.

Last fall, a federal district judge held that FWS failed to fully evaluate ongoing conservation methods in its decision to delist the lesser prairie chicken. A few weeks later, when FWS announced that it would not list the greater sage grouse, the administration was quick to use the grouse as an example of the ESA in action. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth, because the federal government retained control of the species’ habitat.

Activist groups are clearly in control and not just in the way species are delisted. In Oklahoma, the American burying beetle was listed as endangered in 1989 but in the decades since, the insect’s population has rebounded greatly. FWS, however, has been glacially slow to consider removing it from the list of protected species. The continued listing of the beetle is having real-world effects, unnecessarily driving up costs for businesses and development projects.

These problems highlight the need for increased state and local efforts and decreased federal efforts in order to achieve meaningful results. Not only has local involvement been shown to increase the effectiveness of species recovery, but it is beneficial to local economies. Local involvement has been limited, however, because the president is less concerned with how policies affect individuals in rural states like Oklahoma than he is with the stance of groups that have the resources to sway elections.

The president’s complicit participation in sue-andsettle tactics have given the administration the ability to cede any and all scientific responsibility by allowing the FWS agenda to be dictated by environmentalists and the courts. The FWS agenda and the implementation of the ESA should instead be determined by responsible policymaking based on sound science and by experts at the state and local level.

FWS Director Dan Ashe understands that the ESA must be reformed through legislation, and he is ready to work together with Congress to do so. In my role as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I look forward to working to reforming the ESA with bipartisan legislative proposals that benefit states while clarifying the act’s original focus and achieving real results.