Four pieces of legislation that would amend the Endangered Species Act faced a House Natural Resources committee hearing Tuesday.
These bills would boost the transparency of agencies that list species as threatened or endangered and would change the litigation process regarding the ESA.
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., attended the hearing and defended the legislation, saying that the ESA, which is more than 40 years old, is due for an update.
“The lack of transparency and unwillingness of federal agencies to disclose scientific data used in endangered species listings calls into question the validity of the data," he said at the hearing.
Many who testified at the hearing were from Colorado and discussed the Greater Sage Grouse. About 75 percent of Moffat County is made up of sage grouse habitat. The Bureau of Land Management has been tasked with the responsibility of judging the fragility of that habitat and whether the species needs more protection under the ESA. The deadline for that decision is September, and even though U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have reassured locals that sage grouse appear to be a viable species, many residents still are concerned about what a potential listing could mean for business and private property in the area.
Those who testified against the four ESA bills said the legislation wasn’t designed to protect species or that they mandated transparency on information that the agencies did not have authority to make public.
“Frankly, I think it’s a lame excuse to say, 'We’re relying on other sources.' As soon as the agency gets its hands on its data and incorporates it into their reports, that’s public data,” said Kent Holsinger, a Denver attorney who testified in favor of the legislation.
But Steven Courtney, associate at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, said in his testimony that there were economical concerns to consider as well.
“Transparency of process is important, and fair and open explanations of decisions can be valuable,” Courtney testified. “In some situations, complete transparency can be detrimental. Many landowners, for instance, regard information about wildlife on their lands to be proprietary. Full and transparent disclosure of such information could have significant financial impacts.”
The problem, Holsinger said, is that agencies spend too much time tied up in litigation.
“The (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service is often unwilling to share the data on which they’re making their decisions. We’ve had to go to great lengths on even the most basic information,” he said. “It’s a laughable position because the agency spends a huge amount of its time and resources responding to a barrage of lawsuits.”
At the hearing, Tipton stressed that the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies working with the ESA should make their process clearer to make better decisions.
“With regard to the sage grouse, not only have federal agencies refused to disclose the scientific data on which they are relying to determine potential ESA listings, they have failed to even provide preservation goals to state and local entities already working to effectively preserve the species despite numerous requests. There is a fundamental problem with this process,” he said at the hearing. “This would ensure the best available scientific data is being used to most effectively preserve a species.”
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky agreed with that idea.
“Information used by these agencies to make extraordinary decisions with enormous impacts on local communities such as is done with the ESA should be available for review and verification by those it impacts. To operate otherwise furthers the appearance and perhaps the fact that the information is inaccurate, misleading and erroneous, has no scientific basis and is agenda-driven by special interests. Therefore by design is meant to remain hidden from objective review, and, ironically, the ultimate casualty is the ESA and the species it is meant to protect,” Jankovsky testified.
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