Western governors propose sweeping ESA overhaul

By Phil Taylor | 06/14/2016 01:14 PM EDT

JACKSON, Wyo. — The Endangered Species Act should be amended to provide clearer goals for recovering imperiled species and make states “full partners” in listing, critical habitat and recovery decisions, according to a policy resolution unveiled yesterday by the Western Governors’ Association.

JACKSON, Wyo. — The Endangered Species Act should be amended to provide clearer goals for recovering imperiled species and make states "full partners" in listing, critical habitat and recovery decisions, according to a policy resolution unveiled yesterday by the Western Governors’ Association.

The policy blueprint, passed unanimously at WGA’s summer meeting here, also proposes that federal wildlife agencies be given greater flexibility to prioritize which listing petitions they respond to first, among several other proposals.

The eight-page resolution is the culmination of a yearlong, bipartisan effort at WGA to get conservation groups, industry and elected officials to take a "hard look" at how to update the 1973 law. The initiative led by WGA’s chairman, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), included four workshops in Cody, Wyo.; Boise, Idaho; Denver; and Honolulu that drew thousands of participants.


Mead plans to bring the resolution to the National Governors Association, where he chairs the Natural Resources Committee, and seek support from industry, environmental groups, state game and fish agencies, and the Fish and Wildlife Service for a legislative package that could be sent to Congress for approval, he said.

"I refuse to accept that something [as] important as the Endangered Species Act can’t be improved upon," Mead said yesterday during a WGA panel on ESA. "I am not going to go forward today in a timid fashion."

A key provision in the resolution asks Congress to set clearer goals in ESA for what constitutes recovery of a species.

"Western Governors believe that the best way to accomplish this goal is to require the Services to publish clear and quantifiable recovery goals, in consultation with the individual affected state(s), for threatened or endangered species at the time of the listing decision," the resolution states.

The issue resonates for Mead, whose Cowboy State has worked for years to recover the gray wolf. The Fish and Wildlife Service has delisted the predator in Wyoming on multiple occasions, most recently in 2012, only to have the decisions reversed by federal judges (see related story).

Mead said that sends a bad signal to landowners and industry partners who can assist FWS in keeping species from the brink of extinction.

"If you want people to support conservation, if you want them to do conservation work as well, you also have to have the appropriate finish line, [to show] that the job can be done," Mead said. When litigation keeps wolves endangered despite findings by FWS and state scientists that they are recovered, "the Endangered Species Act loses credibility."

FWS Director Dan Ashe called the resolution an important first step toward updating ESA, which was last reauthorized in 1988.

"I think the resolution is a great place to begin a dialogue," he said. "If we can continue that dialogue and if we can keep it bipartisan, and then start to take the resolution and build that into more specific principles and legislative language, then I think it represents the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time to think about reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act."

But Ashe was skeptical whether the current Congress is up to the task.

"I think in our current political climate, constructive legislative improvement of the law, I think, will continue to be difficult to envision," he said. "But I think hope springs eternal that conditions will change, and … I think the WGA effort puts us in a better position to work constructively in a legislative process when the opportunity arises."

In the meantime, he said, FWS will continue to pursue administration reforms to make ESA more efficient and flexible for landowners and industry.

Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director with the Center for Biological Diversity, warned the WGA resolution "would gut the Endangered Species Act" by vesting too much power in states.

"There should be no mistake that if we turn over the keys to the states on the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, the states would immediately turn around and give those keys to the oil and gas industry and other special interests," he said. "And that only spells trouble for wildlife already at the brink of extinction."

The initiative lists seven goals for reauthorizing ESA:

  • Requiring clear recovery goals for listed species.
  • Increasing FWS flexibility to prioritize listing petitions for species in most need of attention.
  • Enhancing the role of state governments in recovering species.
  • Ensuring the use of sound science in ESA decisions.
  • Providing economic incentives for landowners to participate in conservation efforts.
  • Providing a clearer definition of "foreseeable future," a term in ESA that determines whether species are "threatened."
  • Making states "full partners" in listing, critical habitat and recovery decisions.

The resolution also calls for discouraging ESA litigation, increasing grants to help states recover species and giving states greater say in the passage of special rules for threatened species.

It also recommends "delaying judicial review of a rule delisting a species until the conclusion of the federally identified post-delisting monitoring period to allow state management of recovered species an opportunity to succeed."

WGA Executive Director James Ogsbury said finding solutions on ESA requires navigating a political minefield. Legislative compromise in Congress has been elusive.

"Perhaps, I suggested to [Mead], we could take on something a little easier — like peace in the Middle East," Ogsbury said. However, "what has ensued is a remarkably adult and evenhanded dialogue about the ESA and species conservation."