House passes defense bill with riders to hamstring ESA listings

By Ariel Wittenberg | 05/15/2015 12:58 PM EDT

The House passed the military authorization bill today in a 269-151 party-line vote after attaching an amendment that would delist two federally protected species.

An amendment attached to the National Defense Authorization Act in a 229-190 vote yesterday would bar Endangered Species Act protection for the lesser prairie chicken and the American burrowing beetle for at least five years but allow states to include the species in their own conservation plans.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who sponsored the amendment, said ESA protections for those species would inhibit military training operations, with bases having to jump through regulatory hoops before developing projects that would affect habitat.

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"It is highly inappropriate for such exercises critical to military defense to be dependent on the bureaucratic process, especially given the large populations and state-level plans for these two species," Lucas said.

The amendment drew heavy fire from Democrats, who had already failed to remove another ESA rider that would prevent the listing of the greater sage grouse for 10 years (E&E Daily, May 14).

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), who led the effort to save the grouse listing, called Lucas’ amendment "yet another completely unrelated endangered species rider to the underlying bill." She presented a map that she said showed Lucas was creating a false conflict between habitat and military bases.

"Congress should allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to make species listing decisions in accordance to the law and the best available science," she said. "We should not further delay these listings by micromanaging the process on a species-by-species basis."

Prior to the amendment vote yesterday, President Obama threatened to veto the bill, in part due to its inclusion of "nongermane provisions" like the greater sage grouse rider (E&E Daily, May 13).

Tsongas said passing the amendment "would add another provision to that list."

But Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) said the lesser prairie chicken’s range does fall close to bombing ranges in his state.

He cautioned Congress against following the Fish and Wildlife Service’s lead, saying it has been wrong in the past.

"Remember it was the spotted owl that shut down 85 percent of timber logging in this country only to have the Fish and Wildlife Service say ‘Oh, never mind, it wasn’t logging that was causing the spotted owl to go extinct,’" he said.

Speaking in opposition to the bill, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) accused Republicans of treating the lesser prairie chicken as "a sort of feathery sleeper cell."

"Listening to this debate, you’d think that the lesser prairie chicken was singlehandedly providing aid and comfort to the enemy, not just living on the prairie and doing the occasional little dance," she said. "Republicans are trying to do a little dance of their own around the National Defense Authorization Act. The prairie chicken has not attacked our citizens, threatened our allies or disrupted our military operations."

In voice votes, the House also passed amendments requiring the Pentagon to conduct a study on the impact U.S. EPA’s proposed air quality standards for ozone would have on military readiness; ensuring that military training is not restricted by national monument designations under the Antiquities Act; and requiring the Department of Defense to write a report on its merger of the Office of Assistant Secretary for Operational Energy and the deputy undersecretary for the environment.

Reactions

Conservation groups criticized Republicans for inserting the Endangered Species Act into a debate about national defense.

In a statement, the Center for Biological Diversity accused Republicans of trying to "sidestep" ESA and "throw the less well-known species off the ark in the dead of night."

"This partisan vote isn’t about military readiness. It’s about the deep antipathy that most Republicans now direct at endangered species, especially those that get in the way of the oil and gas industry," the center said.

Defenders of Wildlife also criticized the bill, calling it "the epitome of irresponsibility to yank a species off the endangered list simply because certain special interests are opposed to science-based conservation."

But the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association released a joint statement applauding the bill’s efforts to block a greater sage grouse listing and to delist the prairie chicken and burrowing beetle.

"The Endangered Species Act has become one of the most economically damaging laws facing our nation’s livestock producers," the statement said. "When species are listed as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ under the ESA the resulting use-restrictions placed on land and water, the two resources upon which ranchers depend for their livelihoods, are crippling."

The bill passed by the House also contained a provision included in the chairman’s mark that would enable farmers and ranchers to graze their cattle on federal lands.

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