Thank you Mr. Chairman for calling this hearing today on the Section 7 consulting process under the Endangered Species Act. I am very interested in this issue, as this process has a particularly significant impact on the ground in my state of Montana, just as I know it does in yours, Mr. Chairman.
I was particularly interested in the preliminary report prepared by the General Accounting Office, I believe at your request Mr. Chairman. I was struck by the many similarities between what I have heard from my constituents and the findings in that report.
For example, the GAO points out: “Even under normal workload conditions, the consultation process can be difficult, in part because decisions about how species will be protected must often be based on uncertain scientific information and on professional judgement.”
“Decisions resulting from consultations are sometimes challenged in lawsuits and responding to the lawsuits can increase workload and delay activities. These problems were magnified in the late 1990s after several fish species in the Pacific Northwest were listed as threatened or endangered.”
“The new listings increased the Service’s consultation workload significantly in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, and the Services were unable to respond quickly.”
The Service’s issues are no less compelling and complex in Montana, and Montana has a fraction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff that Idaho, Washington and Oregon have to deal with its consultation workload. Montana has only 18 permanent and 5 one-year term Fish and Wildlife Service ecological services employees. These employees are responsible for millions of acres of Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal lands, and countless activities that occur across the state on private and state lands in Montana.
Activities in Montana that could potentially or actually impact endangered, threatened or other sensitive species include: timber harvests and hazardous fuels reduction projects, irrigation development, coal mine development and expansion, new or expanded coal and gas fired power plants, new hydroelectric generating facilities, highway projects, airport facilities, sewage treatment plants and cellular tower placements. Many if not all of these activities could require some level of consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, to address or reduce impacts to fish and wildlife. Lack of funds and staff for Montana hamstrings every other federal agency that depends upon opinions from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
There=s only so much that 18 full-time, permanent employees can do, in a state the size of Montana, with as many endangered, threatened and other sensitive species that we have, including grizzly bears, wolves, lynx, bull trout, sage grouse, prairie dogs, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, fluvial arctic grayling, sturgeon, and the list goes on.
I’ve been told that good projects often never see the light of day in Montana, because the Fish and Wildlife Service just can’t get to them – they’re struggling just to keep up with a crippling backlog. That backlog is hurting the economy of my state and rural, timber-dependent communities like Eureka, Thompson Falls, Columbia Falls, Seeley Lake and dozens and dozens more because every Forest Service timber sale requires some level of consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service. County Commissioners bend my ear about this problem every time I’m back in the state.
Not only can the Service do very little proactive work in Montana to work with communities and landowners to recover species and prevent species from being listed – the staff is struggling to chip away at their crippling backlog of consultation and other work.
Mr. Chairman, Montana is a growing state, and we=re trying hard to continue to grow our economy, to provide more and better paying jobs for the citizens of our state. That means more projects, more improvements, more activity, and more potential for conflicts with fish and wildlife recovery goals.
As Montanans, we prize our first-class landscapes, our pristine rivers and streams. We=re proud of our outdoor heritage and our abundant fish and wildlife. We don=t believe that economic growth and protecting fish and wildlife and their habitat are mutually exclusive goals.
But, a lack of resources has made it very hard for the Fish and Wildlife Service to respond in a proactive way to Montanans= needs or the needs of our fish and wildlife populations. That’s just not right.
I would like to ask the Chairman if he would include Montana in the ongoing study on the consulting process required by Section 7 of the ESA. I believe Montana merits this consideration, and if necessary I will request a separate study from GAO of the situation in Montana. We’re getting close to a crisis here, and from what I understand, it’s been hard on the staff on the ground – they’ve been working long hours, weekends, just to keep from getting buried. I’ve asked the leadership at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Interior multiple times to address this situation, and have received no response.
I’m sorry to sound like a broken record on this issue, Mr. Chairman, but I believe very strongly that ensuring adequate resources for the Fish and Wildlife Service would mean important federal, state and private sector projects more forward more quickly, more efficiently, and that potential problems are addressed up front. More people and more resources means the Service can work more pro-actively with the state and local land-owners on species conservation efforts, to avoid the need to list a particular species, or to help landowners cope with the presence of an endangered or threatened species on their property. For instance, as I’ve mentioned before, a few Service employees did great things to improve habitat for bull trout by taking the time to get to know local ranchers and citizens along the Blackfoot River in Montana.
There may be other means to improve the section 7 consultation process, and I know that’s why the Chairman called this hearing today. I too am interested about any way we can make this process work more smoothly.
Mr. Chairman, I have worked hard in the past to propose common sense reforms to the ESA, in order to help the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies implement the Act more effectively, and with greater sensitivity to the needs of private landowners and states. I was proud of these efforts and the efforts of many of my colleagues on this Committee. I know you are interested in pursuing similar common-sense reforms. But, no matter what may or may not happen with ESA reform this Congress or in any other Congress, we have to adequately fund the Fish and Wildlife Service, and we have to put adequate staff where it=s needed the most. I can’t say this enough.
The investment would be small compared with the benefits to species and to the citizens of my state – we’d see healthier forests, improved species habitat, reduced conflicts, continued economic growth, and fewer lawsuits.
Thank you again, Mr. Chairman for calling this important hearing and I look forward to working with you in the future on this and other issues important to my constituents and the country.