You can’t spell ‘Endangered Species Act (ESA)’ without the letter C – three of them. At a Wednesday hearing that gave a name to those three “Cs” — conservation, consultation, and capacity — the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works heard from state officials regarding the need to modernize the 44-year old law (16 U.S.C. §1531 et seq.). Chairman John Barrasso (WY) described three areas for modernizing the law (identified by state and private sector groups) as conservation (incentivizing activities to avoid listing), consultation (facilitating decision making between federal and state governments), and capacity (providing sufficient resources to fulfill the ESA’s mission and better allocating those to species most in need). While he believes modernization in these areas would lead to better outcomes for imperiled species and humans alike, the bulk of the hearing centered on whether state or federal regulators are more suited to recover threatened and endangered species (including the blue whale, hawksbill turtle, and Atlantic and Chinook salmon). A fourth “C” made the hearing more one-sided than anticipated on what has become an increasingly partisan issue. As members reeled from the firing of FBI Director James Comey, a hastily-called Democratic caucus meeting meant only Ranking Member Tom Carper (DE) appeared at the hearing, providing an opening statement before leaving for the caucus meeting.
Mr. Larry Voyles (Director, Arizona Game and Fish Department) and Mr. Nick Wiley (President, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies) advocated giving more power to state agencies to manage imperiled species. Mr. Wiley elaborated that, despite federal agencies’ best efforts, they “cannot keep pace with the growing number of species subject to petitions for federal listing.” He believes states should not be taking a back seat to conservation efforts. Ranking Member Carper (DE) was wary about taking responsibility from the federal government and asked why so many species are in trouble if state agencies are “equipped to handle species conservation.” Ms. Janet Coit (Director, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management) took the middle road, admitting Rhode Island “lacks a state-level law to protect threatened and endangered species” and thus depends on a federal ESA foundation for species conservation activities, but she also advised that states be given the best resources and chances to succeed.
The overarching sentiment from those present was federal and state agencies need to work together to prevent species from becoming imperiled in the first place. Ranking Member Carper asked the panelists to help Congress “understand what the federal government needs to do to partner better to get this critical job done.” Chairman Barrasso agreed, emphasizing, “Endangered species don’t care whether the federal government, or a state government, protects them. They just want to be protected.”