Gov. Matt Mead did not write the draft bill that would overhaul the nation’s bedrock conservation law, the Endangered Species Act, but some senators grilled the Wyoming governor as though he had in a meeting Tuesday in Washington D.C.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-AK, asked Mead why the draft bill, which was sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, didn’t give states veto power on listing decisions, while the democratic senator from Maryland, Chris Van Hollen, questioned an aspect of the bill that invites states to report on the job performance of individual federal employees.
Mead’s position center stage was not unwarranted. Barrasso first introduced his draft by selling its inspiration: a series of recommendations in 2016 and 2017 from the Western Governors Association that followed a request from Mead to take the difficult issue by the horns.
The draft would change the Endangered Species Act substantially, in ways proponents say give states a role they were originally intended to have, without restricting the authority of federal agencies. A number of conservation groups have been hesitant to endorse the bill early on — praising the approach instead. Others are boldly critical of Barrasso’s intentions.
Though a host of states have dealt with listing decisions, Wyoming has been home to some of the more controversial discussions in recent years: about the gray wolf, the grizzly bear, and for many years now, the greater sage grouse.
Mead fielded the senators’ more critical questions Tuesday, returning to his belief that the ESA as now written invites costly litigation and lacks the appropriate incentives, and funding, to make diverse groups come together successfully.
Mead repeatedly offered one criticism of Congress in more than an hour of testimony and follow up questions: disagreement with an approach that some D.C. lawmakers are currently trying with the sage grouse.
“I have to frankly say that the process of Congress, by popular vote, making decisions based on individual species, is not the best way to go,” he said. “Addressing root problems would obviate the need for Congress to intervene … that would be better legislation, better policy and better for wildlife.”
Mead also admitted that he had supported congressional action on a species on one occasion, with the gray wolf, but said that he still believes that approach is generally a red flag that the underlying law is failing.
Mead enjoyed a few lobs from Barrasso and friendly lawmakers who offered him a chance to respond to some of the criticism of the bill — that it undermines science, reduces federal authority and introduces a five-year stay of judicial review on decisions. On the latter, Mead said that provision buys time, and avoids the “race to the courthouse.”
“During that cooling off period, there is still an opportunity for the (Interior) secretary to have an emergency listing,” Mead said. “You won’t fall off a cliff.”
The bill largely found favor from conservative senators on the committee, who were quick to praise its bipartisan approach. But, not all the Democrats in the room were quite so sure that the draft legislation was as bipartisan as its supporters claimed.
“My view is you took the right approach getting everybody around the table,” Van Hollen said of Mead’s work in fostering the Western Governors recommendations to Congress. “To my knowledge we’ve not followed that approach in drafting the bill.”
The Maryland senator had some other criticisms that he crammed into his allotted time. He asked the governor if the Democrats in the Western Governors Association supported the draft bill. Mead said he did not know, but disagreed with Van Hollen’s assumption that silence meant disagreement.
The senator also asked Mead why federal employees should be reviewed by states.
“I recognize that there are constant communications between the states and the federal government,” Van Hollen said. “But do you think it would appropriate, for you for example, to be told that the federal government is going to weigh in on the performance of your state employees?”
Mead answered “No,” and tried to express possible support from Democrats for some of the provisions in the draft, if not all.
Van Hollen pressed again on the reporting on federal employees, asking why the draft offered a “cudgel” to be used on already embattled workers before he ran out of time.
There has been pushback on the draft bill from some corners in the conservation community.
“It does not ‘amend’ the ESA — it essentially calls for its elimination,” said Bart Melton, Northern Rockies director for the National Parks Conservation Association, in a statement Tuesday.
The Center for Biological Diversity was likewise incensed by the draft bill.
“Only massive greed and cynicism would motivate a member of Congress to push legislation that would roll back all [the ESA’s] successes,” said Brett Hartl, the group’s government affairs director.
The National Wildlife Federation, which has worked with Wyoming’s work to maintain conservation of the sage grouse, thanked Barrasso for his attempt at bipartisanship and expressed hope that the bill would achieve conservation support across the aisle.
A number of these groups are nervous over the very thing Mead criticized, Congress taking steps on an individual animal, in this case, the sage grouse.
Groups like Biological Diversity and many others are fighting a rider tucked into a must-pass military spending bill that would preclude listing the sage grouse for 10 years.
The inclusion of the sage grouse rider in the National Defense Authorization Act was proposed by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT, who has been far more contentious on the sage grouse issue than Wyoming leaders.
Tuesday’s hearing was not the first time Mead had juggled an issue in the currently thorny political climate of extreme partisanship and mistrust. The governor was one of the few conservative voices offering a counterpoint to the narrative of Utah on the sage grouse.
Last summer, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sparked a heated dialogue in Wyoming by suggesting federal sage grouse management plans had failed to take in some Western points of view. The plans were then opened up for changes, with a deadline approaching this fall.
Mead cautioned Zinke against unilateral cuts to the plans, which the governor repeatedly noted emerged from citizen and state efforts. The governor also pushed back on some of the language Zinke espoused last summer that sparked the greatest fear in conservationists and environmentalists in Wyoming: population targets and captive breeding. The rhetoric on those issues died down as reviews and public comments on the plans moved forward.
Mead has disagreed with the majority opinion amongst conservationists and those on the left on one pivotal issue in the plans: whether oil and gas leasing should be allowed in protected habitats or prioritized outside those defined areas.
It’s a position the governor shares with energy in Wyoming, an industry with significant influence over state politics and tremendous importance to the state’s economy.
In the hearing Tuesday, energy was noted by the governor in one aspect. The changes he and other governor’s want in the ESA, many of which are repeated in Barrasso’s bill, will fuel voluntary conservation from various partners and state actions that are better for threatened species.
“On the sage grouse, oil and gas companies, the ranchers, they were very excited (to have a plan in place) … but they also needed to know that there was going to be fruit at the end, that if they were going to do their work there would be a reward.”
Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner