“States, counties, wildlife managers, home builders, construction companies, farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders are all making it clear that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is not working today,” Senate Environment & Public Works Committee chairman John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) said during a hearing on Wednesday.
The hearing focused on the need to modernize the ESA in order to better improve recovery rates and the eventual delisting of recovered species. Of 1,652 species of animals and plants in the U.S. listed as either endangered or threatened since the law was passed in 1973, only 47 species have been delisted due to recovery of the species.
“In other words, the Fish & Wildlife Service has concluded that less than 3% of species in the United States under the protection of the Endangered Species Act have recovered sufficiently to no longer necessitate the protection of the statute,” Barrasso noted.
In congressional testimony, Wisconsin Farm Bureau president Jim Holte told the committee that current ESA enforcement fails to provide adequate incentives for species conservation on working lands and, instead, imposes far-reaching regulatory burdens on agriculture.
Congress intended for the ESA to protect species from extinction, but even after species have recovered, regulations and litigation often fail to allow the removal of their protected status. According to Holte, a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation board of directors, the law is ripe for reform because it places a priority on keeping species listed rather than carrying out actual work related to recovery and habitat conservation.
“Reform of the ESA should include a focus on species recovery and habitat conservation that respects landowners,” Holte told senators. “Coordination with state wildlife agencies to leverage private, incentive-based conservation efforts can better achieve long-term conservation goals.”
Holte, a beef and grain farmer from Elk Mound, Wis., said in his state, regulatory action related to one species in particular -- the gray wolf -- is having adverse effects on many farmers.
In addition to providing statistics about Wisconsin’s wolf population, Holte shared one of many stories about how an attack by the predator species resulted in the gruesome loss of a dairy cow owned by Ryan and Cheri Klussendorf. As a result, the Klussendorfs now keep their herd within 200 ft. of their farmyard at night, and calves are no longer put on pasture.
“The costs have been burdensome, but the emotional toll and increased stress on the family and animals has been tremendous,” Holte said, noting that the family cannot legally protect their herd with a firearm in the event of a wolf attack.
Holte said the Klussendorfs are not the only farmers who have been affected, and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau continues to support the decision to delist the gray wolf and allow state wildlife officials to manage wolf populations. He said interactions among farmers, their livestock, rural residents and wolves continue to escalate, “without a remedy in sight.”
Holte told the committee that congressional action is needed.
The bipartisan Western Governors Assn. has taken on this cause because the ESA has not been updated in any significant way for almost 30 years. The association did not testify at the hearing, but it did submit testimony for the record that noted that "the ESA is premised on a strong state/federal partnership. Western Governors submit that such cooperation should involve full and authentic partnership between the states and services with respect to species listing, critical habitat designations, establishment of recovery goals and delisting decisions."
David Freudenthal, former governor of the state of Wyoming who also served as U.S. attorney under President Bill Clinton, said although he shares others' “general unease with the federal government, protection of endangered or threatened species is an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government.”
“As a former member of the federal executive branch and governor, I naturally favor executive branch action as opposed to legislative action, but in this case, legislative action is needed to affect mid-course corrections to focus the ESA on its original objectives and to improve its operation in our current circumstance,” he said. “Over time, the mix of regulations, court decisions, policy guidance and individual agency actions taken by presidential administrations of different but still well-intentioned views have created a nearly unworkable system.”