Senate Briefing Highlights Need for Strong Federal Role in Protecting Endangered Species

by Alejandro Camacho

October 03, 2017

On September 28, I joined senators and Senate staff for a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Our discussion focused on the report I co-authored with my colleagues at the Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources, entitled Conservation Limited: Assessing State Laws and Resources for Endangered Species Protection, which investigates states' capacity to protect and recover endangered species by looking at how these laws compare to the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). It also looks at state and federal funding for implementing the ESA.  

As we discussed during the briefing, the report found:

  • Few state endangered species laws protect all in-state federally listed endangered species.
  • Many state endangered species laws do not require decisions to be based on sound science.
  • Few state endangered species laws require consultation with expert state agencies.
  • Most state endangered species laws provide less citizen involvement than the federal ESA.
  • Few state endangered species laws provide for the designation and protection of critical habitat.
  • Few state endangered species laws protect against harm to important habitat or species on private lands.
  • Virtually no states require plans to recover species for eventual delisting.
  • States spend little and would need to massively increase funding should the federal role shrink, as a number of representatives and senators have proposed since the beginning of the year. 

Several senators, including Duckworth, are concerned about such calls to devolve authority for endangered species management away from the federal government to the states, despite the Endangered Species Act's popularity with the American people and its significant successes. And it's not just federal lawmakers pushing to shrink and weaken the federal government's role in endangered species protection. The Western Governors' Association, for example, has called for states to be "provided the opportunity to be full partners in administering and implementing the Endangered Species Act," which is another way of asking for species management to be handed over to the states, despite their lack of preparation and resources to handle such an important task. 

No Senate bills have been introduced yet, but Sen. John Barrasso, Chair of the chamber's Environment and Public Works Committee, has held a couple hearings on the topic and is expected to take it up again at some point. 

House members, on the other hand, have introduced a number of damaging bills, including two that would completely reject the emphasis on science-based decision-making that has been vital to the success of the federal ESA: 

  • H.R. 424, the Gray Wolf State Management Act, would block federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Great Lakes states and Wyoming, largely ignoring the extensive science-based decision-making process already undertaken under the ESA.   
  • H.R. 1274, the State, Tribal, and Local Species Transparency and Recovery Act, would completely subvert the Endangered Species Act's science-based listing process by allowing any information provided by any state, tribe, or county to constitute "best available science." 

For more information on the shortcomings of state endangered species laws and the importance of the federal government's role in protecting vulnerable species, check out Conservation Limited: Assessing State Laws and Resources for Endangered Species Protection and an earlier CPRBlog post on the subject. The Defenders of Wildlife has also developed a useful online app based on our research that provides access to state-specific information on laws and funding, as well as maps of the data.

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Also from Alejandro Camacho

Alejandro Camacho is Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine, and Director, UCI Law Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources.

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