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GOP Targets Endangered Species Act     01/17 06:03

   In control of Congress and soon the White House, Republicans are readying 
plans to roll back the influence of the Endangered Species Act, one of the 
government's most powerful conservation tools, after decades of complaints that 
it hinders drilling, logging and other activities.

   BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- In control of Congress and soon the White House, 
Republicans are readying plans to roll back the influence of the Endangered 
Species Act, one of the government's most powerful conservation tools, after 
decades of complaints that it hinders drilling, logging and other activities.

   Over the past eight years, GOP lawmakers sponsored dozens of measures aimed 
at curtailing the landmark law or putting species such as gray wolves and sage 
grouse out of its reach. Almost all were blocked by Democrats and the White 
House or lawsuits from environmentalists.

   Now, with the ascension of President-elect Donald Trump, Republicans see an 
opportunity to advance broad changes to a law they contend has been exploited 
by wildlife advocates to block economic development.

   "It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It's been used 
for control of the land," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob 
Bishop. "We've missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has 
been hijacked."

   Bishop said he "would love to invalidate" the law and would need other 
lawmakers' cooperation.

   The 1973 act was ushered though Congress nearly unanimously, in part to 
stave off extinction of the national symbol, the bald eagle. Eagle populations 
have since rebounded, and the birds were taken off the threatened and 
endangered list in 2007.

   In the eagles' place, another emblematic species --- the wolf --- has 
emerged as a prime example of what critics say is wrong with the current law: 
seemingly endless litigation that offers federal protection for species long 
after government biologists conclude that they have recovered.

   Wolf attacks on livestock have provoked hostility against the law, which 
keeps the animals off-limits to hunting in most states. Other species have 
attracted similar ire --- Canada lynx for halting logging projects, the lesser 
prairie chicken for impeding oil and gas development and salmon for blocking 
efforts to reallocate water in California.

   Reforms proposed by Republicans include placing limits on lawsuits that have 
been used to maintain protections for some species and force decisions on 
others, as well as adopting a cap on how many species can be protected and 
giving states a greater say in the process.

   Wildlife advocates are bracing for changes that could make it harder to add 
species to the protected list and to usher them through to recovery. Dozens are 
due for decisions this year, including the Pacific walrus and the North 
American wolverine, two victims of potential habitat loss due to climate change.

   "Any species that gets in the way of a congressional initiative or some kind 
of development will be clearly at risk," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president 
of Defenders of Wildlife and a former Fish and Wildlife Service director under 
President Bill Clinton. "The political lineup is as unfavorable to the 
Endangered Species Act as I can remember."

   More than 1,600 plants and animals in the U.S. are now shielded by the law. 
Hundreds more are under consideration for protections. Republicans complain 
that fewer than 70 have recovered and had protections lifted.

   "That tension just continues to expand," said Jason Shogren, professor of 
natural resource conservation at the University of Wyoming. "Like a pressure 
cooker, every now and then, you've got to let out some steam or it's really 
going to blow."

   Congress reconvened last week with two critics of the law holding key Senate 
leadership positions --- Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso as the incoming chairman of 
the Committee on Environment and Public Works and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski as 
chairwoman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

   Spokesman Mike Danylak said Barrasso will seek to "strengthen and modernize" 
the management of endangered species but offered no specifics.

   Barrasso's predecessor, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, suggested in an 
interview that one species should be removed from the list every time another 
is added. Another Republican, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, said he wants to limit 
applications for protections to one species at a time.

   In the House, Rep. Tom McClintock of California, chairman of the House 
Subcommittee on Federal Lands, said he wants to ease logging restrictions in 
national forests to reduce tree density blamed for catastrophic wildfires.

   Some Democrats, too, have been frustrated with the law: Minnesota Rep. 
Collin Peterson and two other Democrats joined 11 Republicans last week on a 
bill to end protections for wolves in the Great Lakes and Wyoming.

   Simply by striking a few key words from the law, it could be transformed 
from a tool to protect huge areas of habitat for imperiled species into little 
more than limits on hunting for protected animals, said J.B. Ruhl, a Vanderbilt 
University law professor considered a leading expert on the act.

   Trump's position is unclear. A strong advocate for energy development, he 
has lamented environmental policies he says hinder drilling. But his 
appointment of Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary was seen by some 
conservationists as a signal that Trump will support protections for public 
lands to the benefit of fish and wildlife.

   The Trump transition team did not respond to requests for comment. The 
incoming administration already has immigration, the health care law repeal and 
infrastructure improvements atop its agenda.

   If the administration or Congress wants to gut the law, "they certainly can 
do it," Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau said. "The real question 
with the Endangered Species Act is where does it rank?"

   Advocates and senior Obama administration officials argue the law's success 
is best measured by extinctions avoided --- for 99 percent of protected 
species, including black-footed ferrets, whooping cranes, American crocodiles 
and hundreds of others.

   "There's a lot of evidence that some species are conservation-reliant," Ruhl 
said. Political fights over certain species have dragged out for decades, he 
added, because recovering them from "the brink of extinction is a lot harder 
than we thought."


(KA)

 
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