Washington Announces Endangered Species Reforms

Published June 11, 2015

Just days after the country celebrated Endangered Species Day on May 15, the Obama administration announced the first of what it promises will be number of regulatory changes to improve the efficiency, transparency and effectiveness of the four decade old Endangered Species Act (ESA).

As a side benefit, the Obama Administration expressed its hope the proposed reforms will curtail calls in Congress for a more substantial overhaul or rewrite of the law. 

Critics of the ESA note billions of dollars have been spent to protect and help species recover, yet among the few species removed from the category of endangered or threatened, almost none of their recoveries can be tied directly to protections afforded by the act. Though few species have benefited from the ESA, thousands of towns, businesses and property owners have seen the property rights and economic livelihoods threatened by restrictions placed on their operations in an effort to protect species. 

Hoping to improve the act’s performance, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service announced a slate of proposed updates to Endangered Species Act.

State Expertise and Transparency

The changes are intended to give states greater say in the federal decision-making process meant to protect at-risk species while improving the effectiveness of the law. The first reform announced, now open for public comment, would require anyone petitioning for a species to be protected under the law to solicit information from state fish and wildlife agencies before sending their petition off to the federal government. Petitioners would need to collect relevant data from states on the plight of a species, including its numbers, locations, threats, etc., and include this data and evidence in their listing petition.

This change would give states an opportunity to participate in the process from the outset and, the administration hopes, would improve the quality of data used to determine if a species should be listed as threatened or endangered.

In an interview with the National Journal, FWS Director Dan Ashe said, “We believe this is a good and meaningful innovation. We have never needed the Endangered Species Act more than we need it now, which means it’s important for us to improve the way it works.”

Facing potentially more far-reaching changes alterations of act originating in Congress, the administration is pointing to Monday’s announcement as fresh evidence it is working to improve the law. 

“Congress should engage in the law … but I think what they have to do is engage in a bipartisan conversation,” Ashe said to the National Journal, noting recent Republican efforts to reform the ESA have not won buy-in from congressional Democrats. 

The administration promises additional reforms, including measures to boost transparency, cut red tape, encourage voluntary conservation efforts, and improve the science and data used to make listing decisions and shape recovery plans.

To improve transparency, the administration is formulating a rule to be unveiled later this year, requiring the federal government to publicly disclose online — to the extent not limited by privacy concerns — information used to support listing a species as endangered or threatened, the species current range, habitat needs and recovery plan details. 

Critical Time for Reform

These reforms come at a critical time, as the ESA is currently at the center of a confrontation between Western states and Washington with a deadline looming for the federal government to decide whether to list the greater sage grouse as endangered. 

Western governors, farmers, ranchers, and the oil and gas industry fear listing the grouse as endangered could place thousands, if not millions of acres of land off limits to energy development, ranching, recreation and for other purposes. Critics have argued the administration has failed to fairly engage Western states, who would suffer the brunt of the listing’s conservation restrictions.

Responding to this, Ashe said, “States have considerable data and expertise on many of these species. I think [the proposal just announced is] a key improvement.” 

H. Sterling Burnett ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.