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Alert: Congress Poised to Rewrite the Endangered Species Act
(Beyond Pesticides, May 25, 2004)
U.S. Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA) issued a new report last week condemning the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
. Environmentalists and Democrats were quick to label the report inaccurate, poorly researched and ill-informed. A new bill, based on the report and likely to propose sweeping revisions to the Act including measures that make it harder to list a threatened species, is soon expected by the environmental community.

“The Endangered Species Act is a proven safety net for America’s imperiled plants and animals,” said Susan Holmes of Earthjustice. “This report is a recipe for undoing 30 years of progress and driving scores of species to extinction.”

The report entitled, "Implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973," criticizes the Act by claiming that it has failed to recover more than one percent of the listed species and that very few are meeting their recovery objectives. Environmental groups point out that the Act’s success cannot be measured simply by looking at recovery rates. Threatened or endangered populations of species can take several decades to replenish and many of the roughly 1800 species were added within the last 15 years.

The report also claimed 60 percent of endangered species are uncertain or declining, 30 percent are stable, and only 6 percent are improving. In a formal rebuttal to some of the main points of Rep. Pombo’s report, environmentalists explain that ESA data actually show 68 percent of species with a known trend to either stabilize or improve within six years of being listed. They also point to peer-reviewed scientific studies that show the ESA is working.

The report arrives against the backdrop of recent political maneuvering of the White House and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement “counterpart regulations” that leave listed species more open to harm from pesticides and a lawsuit won by Earthjustice and Washington Toxics Coalition against EPA to implement the ESA and protect endangered salmon from pesticides in the Northwest. (See Daily News on counterpart regulations and lawsuit.)

Rep. Pombo sits on the House Committee on Agriculture, a committee notorious for protecting the use of pesticides at almost any cost. He is also Chairman of the House Resources Committee that oversees the ESA and other environmental issues.

GOP lawmakers are looking to amend the Act by adding incentives for landowners and private developers as well as to “strengthen scientific reviews,” according to The Associated Press. Among the report’s recommendations are better use of science consistent with The Data Quality Act (see Daily News), delisting species that are ‘possibly extinct’ and making it easier to delist species.

The ESA has remained largely intact since its inception in 1973, despite three amendments made through the years by Congress. The Act has an history of being contentious. Private developers complain that the Act interferes with business while environmentalists complain the Act should do more to protect wildlife and habitat. While attempts to “reform” ESA have been made before, the difference this time may be the heavy representation of business interests overshadowing both houses in Congress and the White House that would like to see the Act weakened. According to the Washington Post there is considerable agreement between Democrats and Republicans on easing constraints on private development.

“The mischaracterizations in this report are further proof that developers, and the politicians they give money to, are trying to weaken the Endangered Species Act, the law that prevented the extinction of the American Bald Eagle," said Liz Godfrey, Program Director for the Endangered Species Coalition. "They are manipulating science to fit their political agenda, and working to remove the checks and balances that help protect people from special interests."

Many worry that should the ESA be opened before this Congress, it would quickly get filled with amendments that benefit powerful lobbies rather than wildlife. ESA protected habitat has further come under attack by a bill introduced by Rep. Dennis Cardoza ("Critical Habitat Reform Act of 2005" H.R. 1299), which is also being fought by environmentalists trying to prevent the creation of loopholes that would remove most habitat protections and make the designation of critical habitat voluntary rather than mandatory.

The potential result of rewriting ESA today would be the loss of the fundamental principles that created the Act – to leave behind a legacy of good land stewardship and protected species and habitat for the children and grandchildren of the future.

Rep. Pombo's report is available through http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/

TAKE ACTION: Tell your U.S. Senators and Representative to protect endangered species and leave ESA off the agenda! Use this SAMPLE LETTER (adapted from Endangered Species Coalition).