States versus feds: Mexican gray wolf at center of endangered species debate

Proposed bills could give states a bigger role in listing species as endangered.

July 17, 2018, 5:08 AM

Growing up on a cattle ranch in northern Arizona, Ethan Lane recalls the Mexican gray wolves that would regularly prey on his livestock.

“These wolves are very threatening. The cattle would sense their presence and change their behaviors in response to the pressure,” Lane said, adding that the wolves, listed as an endangered species by federal law, were hard to distinguish from the muscular coyotes that also roamed the area.

Tension over whether the Mexican gray wolf should still be classified as an endangered species is just one example in an ongoing battle between federal and state interests to reform the Endangered Species Act -- the subject of a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

Conservation groups say that giving states more input means that more species that need protection will not be listed as endangered and would block the ability of advocacy groups to sue to protect species.

Lane now serves as the executive director of the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Federal Lands, two groups that represent the interests of U.S. cattle and sheep producers.

Lane said that while the Mexican gray wolf is listed as endangered, federal law also establishes the creation of an experimental wolf population that disturbs livestock and threatens ranchers’ livelihoods.

“Under the current Endangered Species Act, the federal government is in the driver’s seat, and their obligation to consult with state and local governments is a tangential one,” he told ABC News.

Meanwhile, wolf advocates are pushing for the release of the wolves into Arizona and New Mexico to limit inbreeding and promote genetic diversity, which they say will aid in the wolves’ recovery.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is set to discuss a draft of a bill released by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., earlier this month. The bill would shift some of the responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act from the Interior Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and give state governments more input in decisions about endangered species and how to restore populations. The bill is supported by the Western Governors Association, which represents the governors of 19 Western states and three U.S. territories.

PHOTO: Senator John Barrasso speaks with members of the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 27, 2018.
Senator John Barrasso speaks with members of the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 27, 2018.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

The same committee, and its counterpart in the House, considered similar proposals to change the Endangered Species Act last year but conservation groups lobbied against, even bringing television personality Jeff Corwin to testify against them in part because of a provision they said would hurt wolf conservation efforts.

In 2015, Mead launched the Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative to “create a mechanism for states and stakeholders to share best practices in species management; promote the role of states in species conservation; and explore options for improving the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act.”

Lane, who said the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has been working with this initiative “since the very first meeting,” said Barrasso’s proposed legislation is “absolutely a step in the right direction.”

“It’s one of our top priorities to modernize the Endangered Species Act,” he said. “But we can’t do it along partisan lines. We have to engage in a bipartisan manner and focus on recovery, which is what this bill is doing.”

Gov. Doug Burgum, R-N.D., the vice chair of the Western Governors Association, told ABC News he’s “appreciative” of Barrasso’s bipartisan efforts to engage with state leaders.

“This discussion draft would allow more flexibility to implement solutions that enhance the role of state governments in recovering species, while also providing a greater voice to those at the local level who are closest to these issues. By allowing states to innovate, we can make meaningful progress to help these threatened and endangered species recovery,” he said in a statement.

Under the current law, scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evaluate petitions to list species as endangered and write plans on how to recover the population, but the process is underfunded and has a backlog of petitions waiting for a decision.

Barrasso's proposed bill would create a "recovery team" for a listed species including representatives from the Fish and Wildlife Service, state and local wildlife management officials, and scientists. This group would develop a plan to increase the population of the endangered species and make recommendations on whether a species should no longer be listed as endangered.

PHOTO: The Mexican Grey Wolf.
The Mexican Grey Wolf.
STOCK/Getty Images

“We must do more than just keep listed species on life support -- we need to see them recovered. This draft legislation will increase state and local input and improve transparency in the listing process. It will promote the recovery of species and allow local economies to flourish," Barrasso said in a statement.

But Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Endangered Species Act was originally put in place because states weren't doing enough to protect species and that under Barrasso's plan the states would essentially be allowed to veto protections for species.

"These bills would just absolutely make [the backlog] worse. And that's the point of these bills is to deny species protection, that's why I call them extinction bills," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Lane believes under the current Endangered Species Act, environmental groups take advantage of the federal government’s Judgment Fund and the Equal Access to Justice Act to threaten lawsuits against the Fish and Wildlife Service that pressure the agency to act in certain ways.

“They’ll file suits against the government on a timeline, say, pressuring the government to list a species as endangered, which creates a backlog. This reinforces a model of payment to these [environmental] groups, which they benefit from,” he said.

Greenwald said some of those arguments are not because there's a problem with the Endangered Species Act but because protecting a species conflicts with an economic interest for the state.

Earlier this year, more than 100 members of Congress asked for more funding for endangered species protections after the White House's proposed budget included a significant cut to the Fish and Wildlife Service budget.

The bipartisan Congressional Western Caucus has also introduced nine bills to reform the Endangered Species Act, including a bill sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., that would change the process of petitioning for a species to be protected.

That bill says that if too many petitions are pending the Interior Secretary could declare a backlog and dismiss petitions seen as unwarranted. Environmental groups say that change would take away an opportunity for public input in the process of deciding which species are listed as endangered.

The Sierra Club said that the House package of bills shows that lawmakers are trying to get rid of the Endangered Species Act instead of fully funding it.

“We know the Endangered Species Act already allows for flexibility in protecting endangered wildlife. The law requires federal agencies to work together with state, tribal and local officials to prevent extinction. We do not need to change or undo a law that clearly works," Jordan Giaconia, a Sierra Club federal policy associate said in a statement.

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