WASHINGTON - Congressional Republicans are moving forward with legislation to roll back the Endangered Species Act, amid complaints that the landmark 44-year-old law hinders drilling, logging and other activities.
At simultaneous hearings Wednesday, House and Senate committees considered bills to revise the law and limit lengthy and costly litigation associated with it.
The bills come as a federal court lifted federal protections for gray wolves in Wyoming and the Trump administration moved to lift protections for grizzly bears in and near Yellowstone National Park. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also is reviewing federal efforts to conserve the imperiled sage grouse in 11 Western states.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop said the bills would curb excessive litigation and allow officials to focus on actual species conservation.
All too often, the endangered species law "has been misused to control land, block a host of economic activities important for jobs ... [and] proliferate costly litigation that drains taxpayer resources away from actual conservation efforts," said Bishop, a Utah Republican.
Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, the panel's senior Democrat, said the law "does not need congressional meddling to work better. What it needs is congressional support."
Despite years of Republican efforts to pass bills weakening the species law and cut funding for agencies responsible for protecting and recovering imperiled American wildlife, "99 percent of listed species have continued to survive, and 90 percent are on schedule to meet their recovery goals," Grijalva said.
Environmental groups called the simultaneous hearings a "one-two punch" on threatened wildlife.
"While nine out of ten Americans want to protect endangered species and their habitat, congressional leaders are spending their time dismantling the ESA in favor of special interests," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. "Enactment of any of these bills will only hasten the disappearance of endangered and threatened species from our planet."
Five bills were being considered by the House panel, and a sixth bill was being heard in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. One of the bills would allow economic factors to be considered in species-listing decisions, while another would cap attorneys' fees in endangered species cases.
Both the House and Senate would "delist" the gray wolf as a protected species in the western Great Lakes and Wyoming, with management turned over to state officials in Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The bills also would block further judicial review of a 2011 decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections for the wolves.
Gray wolves were once hunted to the brink of extinction in most of the country, but now number over 5,500 in the lower 48 states, including nearly 3,800 in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and nearly 400 in Wyoming.
Representative Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, said the current law prevents Midwest farmers from killing wolves even if they attack cattle or pets.
"The states, not the federal government, are best equipped to manage their gray wolf populations by balancing safety, economic and species-management issues," he said.
Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate environment panel, said the bipartisan Senate bill would enhance recreational hunting and sport fishing, ensure common-sense environmental regulation, and protect wildlife and wildlife habitat. The bill would reauthorize several environmental programs, promote construction and expansion of public target ranges for recreational shooting, and allow fishermen to continue using lead tackle, among other provisions.
"This bill is another example of how we can all work together, both Democrat and Republican, to help protect the environment and grow our economy," Barrasso said.
Gregory Sheehan, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the Trump administration generally supports the House bills, with "some technical modifications.''
His agency plays a key role in preventing extinctions and aiding recovery, Sheehan said, "but states and the people on the ground who have long been stewards of the land are in the best position to be the primary caretakers of species over the long-term.''