Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this important first hearing on updating the Endangered Species Act. I look forward to hearing from the witnesses, including my good friend and former Chairman of this subcommittee Mike Crapo, who is a recognized leader on the issue of ESA. I am particularly interested in the witnesses’ thoughts about areas for improvement in the Act so that we may begin our work considering much-needed legislative changes.
The ESA is one of our most popular environmental laws despite the fact that it has not yet reached most of its stated objectives. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has stated, “Recovery is the cornerstone and ultimate purpose of the endangered species program.” Yet, we have recovered only a tiny fraction of the 1300-plus species on the list. And, half of all the species that have been taken off the endangered species list were removed because the original data was in error and they never should have been added in the first place. According to FWS' most recent report to Congress, 77% of listed species are classified in the lowest recovery achievement category and only 2% fall into the highest recovery achievement category. The reasons for this less-than-stellar record are numerous and complicated. But clearly we ought to be able to do better.
I have many concerns regarding the ESA. I believe that the Act contains perverse incentives for landowners. I have seen first hand in Oklahoma how the implementation of the Act actually ends up penalizing landowners for being good stewards of their land. Instead of being rewarded for trying to create and preserve habitat for an endangered animal or plant, they are hamstrung by rigorous regulations that jeopardize their ability to provide for their families or deliver power to rural communities or develop water resources. The Act encourages landowners to make their land inhospitable to an endangered species in order to avoid regulation. This is not good for the species or the landowner.
It does appear, however, that the current state of affairs is good for lawyers. I am concerned that some groups have contorted and distorted the Act’s goals and provisions to turn it into a tool to halt all land development, regardless of its true effect on species. The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently being inundated with lawsuits. In Oklahoma, I hear that it is common for citizen groups to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider a species for listing knowing that the Service cannot meet its statutory deadline for evaluating that petition. The group then sues the Service for missing the deadline, forcing it to settle the lawsuit and thus pay for the group’s attorney’s fees. The use of the system in this manner is detrimental to both the public and endangered species as it means that the agency's scarce resources are stretched even thinner.
When I began my tenure as Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I stated that I believe we should base regulatory and legislative decisions on strong science. Part of the problem with the ESA is that the science associated with listing and de-listing decisions is often erroneous, incomplete or agenda-driven and not readily available to the public. We must ensure that regulatory decisions are made using independent, peer-reviewed science in an open and transparent process.
Finally, I am interested in hearing what the witnesses have to say with respect to the need for greater state and local involvement. I have heard numerous stories where state and local officials, private landowners, local environmental and citizen groups have worked together in partnership and have agreed to a sensible, protective strategy to recover species while protecting land, only to have the federal government come in and overrule them. States and localities need to be given specific authorities and responsibilities for recovery and day-to-day, on-the-ground implementation. These are the individuals with the closest knowledge of the species, its habitat and local conditions.
With the purpose of the ESA being to recover species, I believe we can learn from other existing programs also being administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. One example of this is the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, for which I recently introduced authorizing legislation. This innovative program provides federal financial and technical assistance to private landowners through voluntary agreements to protect wildlife habitat. Rather than taking a command and control regulatory approach to recovery, this program provides real results for affected wildlife while protecting property rights and giving landowners meaningful and lasting incentives to benefit species on their land. Much can be learned by the success of programs such as these.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for kicking off our legislative work with this hearing today and I look forward to hearing the testimony.