Four U.S. representatives from Western states accused federal agencies and environmental groups on Thursday of using the Endangered Species Act to inhibit energy development, the agriculture industry and sportsmen throughout the country.
The members of the House Natural Resource Committee, all Republican, held a field hearing at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission building in Casper. Wyoming U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis was joined by committee chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, Wash.; Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colo.; and Rep. Steve Daines, Mont. The members said the Obama administration is allowing special interest groups to use litigation to dictate how federal agencies prioritize endangered species listings.
They also pointed blame at the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Allowing the fate of a species to be decided by (them) is not working,” Hastings said.
Lummis and her House colleagues believe states are better suited to control when and how animal populations can become listed or delisted as an endangered species. They also are looking for ways to mitigate the influence of environmental and conservation groups that they say use the act to their advantage.
The committee went to Billings, Mont., after Casper to hear another round of testimony. The committee is expected to collect the thoughts, concerns and proposed solutions from citizens and eventually write a bill that would amend the law. The act, which hasn't been renewed by Congress for 25 years, keeps being refunded every year. Many opposed to the law would like to see it defunded forever, but for some lawmakers in Washington it is a sacred cow, said Bob Wharf, executive director for the Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
The push to reform the Endangered Species Act will take a hard look at how political science — as opposed to hard science — is used in determining the listing or delisting of species, members say.
There needs to be peer-reviewed scientific data — not statistics that are hand-picked by federal agencies — to buttress any move that would affect policy on federal land, Lummis said.
“There’s a selective use of peer-review and non-review literature,” said Renee C. Taylor, owner of Taylor Environmental Consulting in Casper. “Agencies select non peer-reviewed literature and information provided by industry and private parties is often ignored.”
The committee invited Taylor, Wharf and three other Wyomingites who offered solutions and provided first-hand experience with how the act works in courtrooms, on ranches and in the wilderness.
Before their testimony, Lummis said Wyomingites are helping create new policies without the heavy hand of the federal government.
“It’s going to percolate up from the local level to the policy level,” she said.
Wyoming’s sage grouse conservation strategy was one example of how grassroots groups and state-level agencies worked together to provide a plan that appeased wildlife groups and fell within the guidelines of the Endangered Species Act, she said.
Wyoming's plan received approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM. But the BLM’s support may not last forever, Taylor said. The 10th District Federal Court in Idaho recently advised the BLM to consider additional conservation strategies that don't take into account local economies, state conservation strategies and such multiple uses as ranching and recreating, she added.
The BLM is expected to make a decision by November.
Meanwhile, Hastings said only 2 percent of endangered species have been revived thanks to the law.
“What revives species are communities coming together to rally and protect them,” Wharf said.
One strategy touted by Lummis and others at the hearing is conservation banking, a technique used to restore, improve and preserve habitats.
Jeff Meyer, a managing partner of the Pathfinder Renewable Energy and Sweetwater River Conservancy, spoke about what he’s done on a nearly one-mile stretch at Horse Creek on the south side of Highway 220 by mile-marker 73.
Two years ago the area would flood after storms, leaving water in puddles instead of being used for livestock and providing a home for fish. The grass was brown, short and soggy. One year later, after Meyer’s work with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the creek flowed in its natural pattern, trees were planted and grass grew tall, he said.
Richard Garrett is an energy policy analyst for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. He said the Endangered Species Act benefits Wyoming as it currently stands. However, he agreed that ideas like Meyer’s are a pathway to consensus.
“Is there room for improvement? Yes. But we have to find better ways to work together,” he said.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said there needs to be more local involvement between landowners, the energy industry and other stakeholders in the state.
"If the act passed last week, we could do all the things we want to do," he said. "But over 40 years it's become the antithesis of its original intents."