The Endangered Species Act was on the agenda of both houses of Congress on July 19, as separate House and Senate committees considered a total of six bills aimed at revising and limiting aspects of the 1973 conservation law. The bills are largely supported by GOP lawmakers and the Fish and Wildlife Service, but have faced criticism from Democrats and conservation groups.
The majority of bills were taken up by the House Committee on Natural Resources, led by GOP Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah. Only one bill was heard in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Bishop began the House hearing by alleging that the ESA had a reputation for preventing land development, hindering economic activity, and contributing to the proliferation of "costly litigation that drains taxpayer resources away from actual conservation efforts."
"In short, the ESA doesn’t work," said Bishop. "We have to find a way to reform it so it actually solves problems."
Among the bills being considered was one that would reinstate a 2011 decision to lift protections for the gray wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region and prevent the decision from further review.
The de-listing of the gray wolf, which was backed by the Obama administration, became controversial after a 2014 court ruling made it illegal for farmers to shoot gray wolves despite a rebound in their population. Cronkite News reports that certain protections were once again lifted in March by the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Other bills on the table for the House committee included reforms to take more economic considerations into account when deciding to add a species to the endangered list, prevent non-native species from receiving protection, and limit citizens' ability to file lawsuits over an endangered species law.
One bill would require agencies to use state, tribal or federal data when determining conservation status. Detractors worry that strict rules mandating use of government data could lead to "contradictory, out-of-date or fraudulent" claims, Huffington Post reports.
Despite criticism from private environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service voiced support for the bills.
Meanwhile, the committee chairman, GOP Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, led the hearing of a bipartisan Senate bill designed to boost recreational fishing and hunting. The Hill reports that the Senate bill also included a provision to de-list the gray wolf.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the House panel's senior Democrat, called the package of reforms a "weird menu" and said they were a "waste of time."
In defending the ESA, Grijalva pointed to statistics: "99 percent of listed species have continued to survive, and 90 percent are on schedule to meet their recovery goals."
Greg Sheehan, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, offered an analogy during his remarks: "I find it helpful to think of the ESA as a hospital, where critically ill patients are admitted in anticipation of recovery. In this hospital, there has been success in keeping the ESA patients from dying, but not so much on getting them discharged in healthy condition. The ESA hospital was never intended to keep all patients indefinitely."
Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman of California said that any emergency room doctor "would receive universal praise" if they managed to save 99 percent of their critical patients. In another instance, Grijalva likened the ESA to Medicaid, which provides care to "the most vulnerable among us."
Though no bills will become law until voted on by more members of Congress, the hearings are the first step in pushing legislation regarding ESA reforms forward.