Statement of Senator Craig Thomas
Hearing on the Endangered Species Recovery Act of 1997
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing today to examine the recently introduced "Endangered Species Recovery Act of 1997." As this committee knows, you and Senators Kempthorne, Baucus, Reid -- and the Clinton Administration -- have been negotiating for months to reach a compromise on this legislation. I look forward to hearing the comments of my colleagues, and those of the witnesses, about the strengths and weaknesses of this bill. Reforming the Endangered Species Act is one of the most important issues this committee will deal with this Congress. It is an Act that is complex and we need to look at ways to make the law more effective. This cannot be achieved, however, without cooperation between federal, state and local governments, as well as private landowners. And as we learned from the last Congress, it is important that we do it right the first time. True reform of the Act cannot be achieved incrementally.

At the outset, let me say that we all want to protect and conserve endangered species. I am hopeful that this time around we can move beyond the rhetoric that has taken place in the past and recognize that all parties want to help protect species. The discussion should focus on using our experience to find a better way to list, recover and de-list endangered species.

Having reviewed the bill briefly since its introduction last week, I do believe there are some good provisions that will improve the ESA. However, I also noticed that issues like state authority over water rights and private property rights are not as detailed as some would like. As a Western Senator, I am concerned about what this means for folks in my state, and what it means for passage of this legislation.

As Senator Kempthorne and others on this committee know, water is the lifeblood of many farmers and ranchers in the arid West. Without it, communities, jobs and economic growth would literally dry up. I want to make sure that, at a minimum, states do not lose primacy over water allocation under this legislation, and would prefer to work with the sponsors to possibly add language reaffirming states' rights with regard to water.

On the issue of private property, we all realize the warning flags that go up even at its suggestion. I have participated in numerous hearings with Senator Kempthorne in the last Congress and certainly understand both sides of this issue. S. 1180 incorporates "safe harbor agreements" and "no surprise polices," which aim to protect private property owners from further liability under the ESA when they take voluntary steps to conserve species on their property. I believe these provisions are important, but are they enough to ease the concerns of landowners in Wyoming and other states? I'm not sure. I hope to hear from our witnesses about these provisions and will be working with folks in my state in the next week to ensure they are comfortable with these measures.

I am pleased, however, that for the first time, the Secretary of Interior will be required to use the best scientific and peer-reviewed data available when listing and de-listing endangered species. In Wyoming, we've seen first hand the need to improve the listing process. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service should not be forced to spend taxpayers' money to look at proposals to list species without strong scientific evidence to back it up. And it's refreshing to see that individual states will be recognized as partners in the listing and recovery processes. For too long, the states folks who have all the responsibility for managing the species once it is off the list -- have not been true partners in that process.

Furthermore, we need to start focusing on priorities for listing and de-listing and I hope to hear more about the scientific requirements in the bill for petitions to list, de-list or alter the status of a species. Wyoming's experience with the Grizzly Bear is a good example of some of the problems with the current de-listing process. It is my understanding that this legislation would develop deadlines for recovery plans and includes benchmarks to determine whether progress is being made toward recovering the species. I think it's important to realize that criterion and priorities need to be set -- and once those targets are met -- begin the process of de-listing. I hope our panelists will elaborate on how this section of the bill will improve the recovery and de-listing of endangered species.

In closing, Mr. Chairman, let me again say thanks to you and the other bill sponsors for bringing this issue to the forefront. Reforming the Endangered Species Act is, and has been, a priority of mine for quite some time. I hope we are able to move forward in a manner which improves the current Act and recognizes the importance of partnerships between the federal government, state governments and private property owners.