Baby Steps – A Big Jump
At the end of April, the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources took some baby steps to make a big jump in the reform of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This is an act of Congress that was originally passed to help bring back species of plants and animals that were threatened or endangered. Now days, it is used as a club to curb multi-use management and to only manage for a single species. Those who originally wrote the act many years ago say that one would not recognize it today, as many opinions and judge’s rulings have changed the act. Nothing strikes fear in the minds and hearts of those in natural resource management or those who use the resources as does this act as it reads today.
Based on the findings and recommendations of the ESA Working Group, a series of bills were introduced to improve scientific and litigation transparency, enhance state’s role in developing species science and cap government paid attorney’s fees under the ESA, according to a press release from U.S. Representative Cynthia Lummis’ office.
Congressman Lummis was also the co-chairman of the ESA Working Group. We applaud her for her work on the issue, as she knows as much or more about the ESA issue as anyone in Congress. Representative Lummis is the lead co-sponsor of the bill H.R. 4316 and is an original cosponsor of all four bills that passed.
The first of four bills is H.R. 4315 – the 21st Century Endangered Transparency Act, sponsored by Representative Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), a long time opponent to federal overreach in the western states. This bill would require data used by federal agencies for ESA listings decisions to be made publicly available and accessible through the internet. It would allow everyone to actually see what data is being used to make key listing decisions. In reality, we get to see the sausage getting made.
Next, H.R. 4316 – Endanger Species Transparency Act, sponsored by Representative Lummis – would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to track, report to Congress and make available online three things. They would be required to list funds expended to respond to ESA lawsuits; the number of employees dedicated to litigation; and attorney’s fees awarded in the course of ESA litigation and settlement agreements.
H.R. 4317 – titled State, Tribal and Local Species Transparency and Recovery Act and sponsored by Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) – would require the federal government to disclose to affected states all data used prior to any ESA listing decisions and require that the “best available scientific and commercial data” used by the federal government include data provided by affected states, tribes and local governments.
Finally, H.R 4318 – Endangered Species Litigation Reasonableness Act, sponsored by Representative Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) – would prioritize resources towards species protection by placing reasonable caps on attorney’s fees and making the ESA consistent with another federal law. The Equal Access to Justice Act limits the hourly rate for prevailing attorney fees to $125 per hour. However, no such fee cap currently exists under the ESA, and attorneys have often been awarded huge sums of taxpayer-funded dollars.
All of these acts are really needed to open up the process of listing a species and limit those who have been making a living suing the government without regard for the species.