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Would a shift to state power endanger species?

Rebecca Beitsch, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- A fight is brewing over the Endangered Species Act after congressional Republicans and federal agencies this year proposed major changes, including shifting more control over species protection to the states.

Many states, especially Western ones with vast expanses of federal land, have long pushed for changes to the law. But what seemed unlikely under prior administrations has a better shot under the Trump presidency.

A package of bills introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by members of the Congressional Western Caucus, all with Republican sponsors, would alter how species are listed and habitat is protected. States are most focused on measures that would affect their power, including bills that would allow them greater say over which species get protections. A draft bill in the U.S. Senate being circulated by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican, would "elevate the role of state conservation agencies," according to a news release from the U.S. Senate committee he chairs.

While the various pieces of legislation may face a heavy lift getting through Congress, federal agencies last month finished taking public comments on proposed rule changes. Unveiled in July, the agency revisions would allow agencies to consider economic costs when deciding whether to protect species, possibly reduce the amount of protected habitat and make it easier to take species off the endangered and threatened species list, among other changes proposed by the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A letter from Democratic attorneys general in nine left-leaning states and the District of Columbia opposed the agencies' proposed changes, in part because they would "impose significantly increased costs and burdens on the states," which would pick up the slack. The attorneys general also say the changes would weaken the law by constraining the government's ability to consider climate change.

Endangered species protections have become a polarizing debate. Those who favor changing the law accuse environmentalists of using it to keep land locked away from ranchers or industry. Green groups argue that states eager to take on new roles want to limit federal interference with no real intention of maintaining protections.

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But governors, industry and wildlife experts are sharply divided over whether states have the resources or legal framework in place to take on a greater workload.

"If the argument is that states will be better because they're more efficient at managing endangered species protection, there is little evidence of that," said Alejandro Camacho, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine who wrote a paper analyzing state spending and laws dealing with endangered species.

The federal law passed in 1973 precisely because states weren't doing a sufficient job of protecting species, he said.

But policy advisors in states that want to take on a greater role in conservation say the federal government has a poor track record of recovering species once they are on the list. Just 53 species added to the list have been removed because their populations sufficiently rebounded.

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