Republicans in Congress are once again trying to change the Endangered Species Act in a way that would make it harder to protect species at risk of extinction. The bill, introduced last week in the House of Representatives, would require government agencies to consider the economic costs tied to listing a species as “threatened” or “endangered.” It would also eliminate clear timeframes the government has for responding to listing petitions; the bill would basically allow government agencies to ignore petitions or prioritize certain petitions over others.
“The bill would ensure the complete breakdown of species listings under the Endangered Species Act,” says Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Slowing down the process is a huge problem. To add more delay and more uncertainty will just push more species to the brink.”
The Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress in 1973 to boost the conservation of threatened and endangered animals and plants. In 1982, the law was amended to say that the decision on whether or not a species should be listed under the law must be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific information.” That’s because evaluating whether a species is likely to go extinct is a scientific question, not an economic one, says Josh Galperin, the director of the Environmental Protection Clinic at Yale Law School. The law basically prevents “short term economic concerns” — like restrictions on oil and gas drilling — to dictate what the US can do to protect its natural heritage, Emily Jeffers, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, tells The Verge in an email.
If the federal government needs to take into account economic impacts to public and private land, as well as employment, fewer species would get listed under the Endangered Species Act, Riley says. It’s “just a way to undermine that process,” she says.
The bill, called HR 717, or the Listing Reform Act of 2017, would also get rid of certain specific deadlines the government currently has when making listing decisions. Under the law, the two government departments responsible for listing species, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, have 90 days to determine whether or not they’re going to consider a listing or delisting petition. Within 12 months, the government has to make an initial finding on the species’ endangerment.
Getting rid of these clear deadlines is key to give the government some flexibility, according to Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), who introduced the bill. But flexibility in this context can do more harm than good. “Complete flexibility sounds good, but it’s not, because government has to be held to certain standards,” Galperin says. “If they’re not held to standards, then it’s very hard to make sure they’re doing their job properly.”
Final listing decisions already take way longer than they should, Riley says. In fact, sometimes they take years. The rusty patched bumblebee was first petitioned to be protected in 2013, but it wasn’t until January of this year that the animal was added to the endangered species list. The bumblebee has already lost 90 percent of its habitat, Riley says. “We already have plenty of species that, by the time they’re put on the list, it’s almost too late,” she says.
The bill would also allow the government to respond to petitions not in the order in which they are received. That would allow the government to give priority to requests to remove species from the endangered species list, instead ignoring petitions to list species. “An administration hostile to the ESA might take advantage of this newfound flexibility to avoid listing a controversial species or to drag their foot with all species,” Jake Li, the vice president of endangered species conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, writes in an email to The Verge.
Certain Republicans in Congress have tried to change the Endangered Species Act many times before. The previous Congress alone introduced over 250 amendments, bills, and riders aimed at changing the law, according to Cassandra Carmichael, the executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. This time, though, Republicans control both houses, and they have a president that will likely sign the bill into law.
If it’s passed, however, this legislation would undermine a law that the vast majority of Americans support. A 2015 poll found that 90 percent of Americans, across the political spectrum, support the Endangered Species Act. “The public strongly supports protecting species, keeping species from going extinct,” Riley says. “If Congress attacks the Endangered Species Act, there will be a strong pushback from the American public.”