U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   08/23/2004
 
Statement of Senator Craig Thomas
Field Oversight Hearing on Endangered Species Act

On behalf of the Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, I would like to welcome you to this hearing concerning the Endangered Species Act. Like most folks in Wyoming, I have a great affinity for the many plant and animal species native to our State. I believe the Endangered Species Act’s intentions of protecting species are noble, but feel these noble intentions have, in some ways, gone astray. If we are to efficiently preserve Wyoming’s flora and fauna as well as prevent Wyoming’s ranchers, farmers, and miners from themselves becoming endangered species, we must focus on improving the Endangered Species Act.

I would like to start the dialog about the Endangered Species Act by briefly discussing two possible improvements. First, amend the Act to ensure that decisions concerning threatened and endangered species are made using empirical, field-tested, or peer-reviewed data. Second, I would like to see a provision in the Act that would grant Agencies the authority to establish specific recovery goals for each species and de-list the species once the goals are met.

My first suggestion for using only empirical, field-tested or peer-reviewed data arises from what I perceive as a scientific shortcoming of the Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently required to decide whether to list a species based “solely on the best scientific and commercial data available.” The data is not even required to be good data – just the best available. The Act does not provide any further guidance as to the type of information the Fish and Wildlife Service can consider or rely upon, so the Fish and Wildlife Service, erring on the side of caution gives the benefit of the doubt to listing species. Given the high probability of litigation, I can certainly understand why the Fish and Wildlife Service chooses to err on the side of caution. I do believe, however, the public and the species we are trying to protect would be better served if the Endangered Species Act instructed the agencies to consider only empirical, field-tested, or peer-reviewed data.

A good example exists right here in Wyoming. The decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse as “threatened” in 1998 was based on a 44-year old study concluding that the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse was a distinct subspecies. The study itself had examined the skulls of only three mice and the skins of eleven mice. This study was used to justify preventing the construction of roads, sewers, water lines, and other infrastructure needed for new development. It also was used to prevent ranchers from clearing weeds from irrigation canals and grazing their livestock along streams. It was even used to block the construction of reservoirs during a serious drought. Since the listing of the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, new DNA testing has concluded that the mouse is not a distinct subspecies after all. Instead, it is genetically identical to the unlisted Bear Lodge mouse. Even the author of the original 1954 study agrees his original conclusion was incorrect. In other words, Wyoming citizens were forced to take costly measures to protect a species that was never threatened in the first place.

Due to the significant economic burden often associated with preserving species, we must ensure that decisions concerning the possible listing of species, such as the sage grouse, are based on sound science. We simply cannot afford to continue making mistakes similar to the one made with the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. Unfortunately, current law seems to encourage such outcomes by giving the benefit of the doubt to listing a species if only a small amount of evidence suggests the species is threatened or endangered.

Requiring empirical, field-tested, or peer-reviewed data would allow agencies to be methodological in their decisions to list species. Furthermore, by listing a species only when there is reliable evidence that the species is threatened or endangered, we can lessen the burden many private citizens, and local and state agencies, bear under the Endangered Species Act. This would allow agencies to focus their resources and efforts on the species that are actually in need of protection.

I would like to turn from a discussion of the decision to list a species, to the more positive aspect of the Endangered Species Act – the delisting process. While I fully support efforts to protect species, I believe we have lost focus over the true goal of this Act, which is the recovery and de-listing of species. Over the more than thirty-year existence of the Endangered Species Act, well in excess of 1,200 species have been listed as threatened or endangered. Only sixteen species have recovered to the point of being de-listed. It is obvious that even when a species has recovered, agencies do not have clear standards and guidance regarding species de-listing.

Wyoming’s experience is illustrative of the problem. Both the grizzly bear and the wolf have sufficiently repopulated the area in and around Yellowstone National Park, but these animals have still not been de-listed. They are both still on the threatened and endangered species list and will likely remain there for a while.

Using sound science is a good place to start to fix this problem. Armed with verifiable scientific data, agencies would be able to not only determine what actions are necessary to preserve a species but simultaneously put into place a recovery plan. In other words, there should be a clear goal for recovery of a species from the time it is listed. Once the recovery goals have been met, the species should be de-listed.

Having well-defined goals and actually de-listing recovered species will provide certainty in the recovery process. I have heard some land owners say the best thing to do if you discover an endangered species on your property is shoot, shovel, and shut-up. I understand why people hold that opinion. Citizens impacted by endangered species can look forward only to endless restrictions, even if the species is recovering. This is clearly not the attitude we should encourage if we are to have success in saving threatened and endangered species. If citizens of Wyoming knew a decision to list the species was based on reliable scientific data and that the federal regulation would end once the species recovers, many of them would, in all likelihood, be more supportive of the Endangered Species Act.

Likewise, the State of Wyoming as well as other western states may be more supportive of recovery efforts if they are allowed to participate in the decision-making process and are confident the agencies are relying on accurate information.

While I have offered two suggestions for improving the Endangered Species Act, I look forward to hearing the testimony and a more in depth discussion from our panelists today on how the Endangered Species Act is applied and how it affects our lives. I most look forward to hearing other suggestions for solutions to the problems of the Endangered Species Act and how to make it work better for all Wyomingites. I remain optimistic that with meaningful reforms, the Act will allow future generations to enjoy Wyoming’s impressive array of plants and animals as well as a vibrant economy.