Congressional Efforts on ESA Modernization

By NACD Natural Resource Policy Specialist Adam Pugh

On July 12, the Congressional Western Caucus rolled out its legislative package to modernize the Endangered Species Act (ESA). On July 17, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) held a legislative hearing on its discussion draft of the ESA Amendments of 2018. NACD staff and interns attended the Congressional Western Caucus event in support of its modernization efforts. Bringing the ESA into the 21st century is crucial to improving species recovery and essential to increasing the state and local government’s authority to lead on conservation efforts.


The Congressional Western Caucus legislative package consists of nine bills: the LIST Act, PREDICTS Act, EMPOWERS Act, STORAGE Act, WHOLE Act, LOCAL Act, LAMP Act, PETITION Act, and Endangered Species Transparency and Reasonableness Act. It focuses on restoring authority back to the state and local governments that are impacted most by protected species. The Western Caucus legislation encourages voluntary conservation efforts, improves precision in the listing, delisting, and downlisting of protected species, it provides for greater certainty and improved planning for incidental take permit holders, and provides for greater state consultations regarding ESA petitions.

This legislation provides for consideration of the totality of habitat conservation measures in determining the likelihood of destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat from a proposed federal agency action. It is imperative that the implementation of the ESA emphasizes the needs of communities impacted by listings and focuses on scientific and peer-reviewed evidence, rather than an ideologically-driven agenda. Prior to the Congressional Western Caucus legislative roll out, NACD President Brent Van Dyke sent a 
letter of support to Chairman Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) emphasizing “the ESA must be modernized, and voluntary conservation plays an important role in achieving this.”


On the other side of the Capitol, Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) of the Senate EPW has made public its discussion draft of the ESA Amendments of 2018. The draft strengthens states’ rights and states’ input on species management throughout the listing and delisting process. The ESA Amendments supports locally-led conservation activities to help preclude the need to list species under the ESA and provides states the opportunity to lead recovery planning and implementation programs.


The Senate proposal emphasizes federal authority should be exercised in conjunction with state authority regarding conservation and management of fish and wildlife under the ESA. It supports state-led conservation activities to help preclude the need to list species under the ESA. It also requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to work with states when a petition to list a species under the ESA is received and to provide states the opportunity to lead recovery planning and implementation, expedite recovery of threatened or endangered species, and increase flexibility and feasibility of the recovery plans.


The proposed language requires the Department of the Interior to establish procedures for developing and entering into voluntary wildlife conservation agreements, including with state and local governments, private landowners, lessees and private third-party organizations. It requires the Secretary to streamline the process for entering into a voluntary agreement to the maximum extent practicable. The federal government will have an equal voice in conservation decisions as this legislation requires coordination with public and private partners, including conservation districts and tribal governments. Van Dyke sent a letter to Chairman Barrasso commending him of his efforts to make the ESA more incentive-based through the emphasis on voluntary conservation agreements.


The ESA was enacted in 1973, and we have seen only a few success stories. The intent of the ESA is broadly supported, to provide a means for the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such species, and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve such conservation. However, in the last 45 years, we have seen the ESA weaponized and abused by a handful of non-government organizations who want to extend the overreach of the federal government in species conservation decisions.


Throughout its history, the ESA has been amended four times, each giving the federal government more authority to protect ecosystems. Modernizing the ESA to emphasize local control is imperative to saving threatened species and endangered species. Both legislative packages require the federal government to consider the landscape and how each listing may impact other species. One success story highlighting the importance of local efforts is the greater sage-grouse, a species that was petitioned to be listed under the ESA in 2015. Through collaborative efforts of private landowners, states, and local governments, recent reports indicate the species’ population is trending towards recovery. This is just one example of how locally-led conservation efforts can directly benefit endangered species more than a heavy-handed federal government.


NACD continues to work with Congress and the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition to bring the ESA into the 21st century and advocate for more locally-led conservation efforts for threatened species and endangered species.

Adam Pugh is NACD’s Natural Resource Policy Specialist and can be reached at adam-pugh[at]

Tags: ESA, endangered, species, act

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