Enviros, GOP lawmakers square off over plan to block Southwest listings

Posted: Aug 8, 2011

Written by

PHIL TAYLOR, E&E

Environmental groups are marshalling opposition to a proposal by four Republican lawmakers from New Mexico and Texas to yank the Fish and Wildlife Service's ability to provide Endangered Species Act protections to a lizard and grouse that roam parts of the Southwest.

Groups including WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity this week accused Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) of misstating the effects of FWS's proposal to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species.

In an email yesterday, WildEarth called on its supporters to urge House Interior appropriators to oppose the lawmakers' proposal to pre-empt a listing of the lizard and the lesser prairie chicken, warning that the lizard is at risk of extinction from oil and gas drilling, herbicide use and off-highway vehicles.

"Representative Pearce and others are whipping up a frenzy about this blameless lizard, claiming that its protection will 'shut down' oil and gas drilling in the Permian Basin," the group said. "Their wild statements don't comport with reality. Listing will not cause an industry shut-down."

Others have called on Pearce to clarify his public remarks in late April when FWS held public meetings on the proposal.

Kierán Suckling, executive director for CBD, criticized statements by Pearce that most oil and gas jobs in southeast New Mexico are at risk from a listing and that a threatened listing of the spotted owl in the 1970s "killed the entire timber industry." The spotted owl, however, was not listed until 1990, Suckling said.

But Pearce said FWS has also made false claims that listing the lizard as endangered will not kill jobs.

In a statement to the media last week, Pearce said FWS informed him that the agency does not have to consider jobs or economic impacts when deciding endangered species listings. While the agency has said no jobs will be lost by the listing, it has ignored repeated requests for economic data, Pearce said.

"Fish and Wildlife is making economic claims without facts," Pearce said. "My office has asked for data from Fish and Wildlife on how jobs will be impacted, and they claim they don't have the information."

The Midland, Texas-based Permian Basin Petroleum Association has also warned that a listing could shut down oil and gas production in the affected region for two to five years while FWS develops habitat conservation plans (HCP) and conducts more research.

Andrews and Gaines counties in west Texas, the group adds in a "talking points" memo, are the state's first- and second-highest oil producing counties respectively.

In a letter to House appropriators last month, Pearce and Texas Republican Reps. Michael Conaway, Randy Neugebauer and Francisco Canseco said FWS officials in Washington, D.C., are ignoring voluntary partnerships known as Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCA) and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA) that allow private parties and landowners to commit to voluntary conservation measures.

"CCAs and CCAAs hold the promise to help us conserve our wildlife in partnership with our local businesses and communities, instead of at their expense," the lawmakers wrote. "Yet, before these projects have even begun to bear fruit, FWS is removing them as an option."

But a federal listing would not necessarily interfere with voluntary efforts such as CCAs, said Patrick Parenteau, a law professor at the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic of the Vermont Law School.

"They can become the basis for the recovery plan, which provides some structure and transparency to actually measure the progress being made," he said.

However, CCAs do not always produce their intended results, Parenteau added. A case in point is the Gunnison sage grouse, where a number of voluntary CCA-type efforts have failed to stop the bird's continued decline in Colorado and Utah amid habitat disruptions from oil and gas wells, he said.

Parenteau also questioned the lawmakers' claims that listing decisions imperil oil and gas development.

"I don't know what constitutes an 'economic calamity' in the minds of the representatives, but I'm pretty sure I've never seen one created by a listing decision or a critical habitat designation," he said. "This claim was made loudly and often in the case of the northern spotted owl. But as time went by and facts replaced political rhetoric, it became apparent that saving the last 10 percent of the old-growth forests provided more economic benefits to the region than liquidating the timber for export to Asia."

FWS in December said the 3-inch lizard that roams southeastern New Mexico and west Texas faces "immediate and significant threats" from oil and gas activities and herbicide treatments.

Under a listing, federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management and the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service would be required to consult with FWS and obtain "biological opinions" for permitting activities that could affect the lizard. The vast majority of projects are allowed to proceed if they implement conservation measures to mitigate impacts to species, FWS said.

"Overall, we anticipate that effects to oil and gas and ranching operations should be minimal, but there may be delays due to the time required to complete [ESA] consultations or the HCP process," the agency said in a fact sheet on its website. "There should be no significant time delays for those participating in the CCA/CCAA."

The agency is also required by law to list the lizard when funding and resources become available, the agency said. FWS in 2001 determined that the lizard was warranted for listing.

Only three companies had enrolled in the voluntary conservation programs when the agency published its proposed listing rule.

Science, not politicians

At the same time, the Obama administration's nominee to lead FWS this week questioned the lawmakers' proposal to strip the agency's ability to list the lizard and prairie chicken, arguing that such decisions are best decided by government scientists, not Congress.

"Listing decisions should be based on the science," Dan Ashe told Greenwire following a news conference on birds this week at Washington's Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. "Is the species endangered or threatened, or is it not? If it meets the statutory criteria of endangered or threatened, it should be added to the list."

The proposal comes less than a month after Congress removed ESA protections for the gray wolf in Montana, Idaho and portions of three other states, an action that has no precedent and which critics warned could inspire additional congressional meddling in species protections.

"These politicians' intentions for the lizard continue a disturbing trend of Congress attempting to vet species listings on behalf of special interests," WildEarth said.

Ashe said he was unaware of any earlier attempts by Congress to pre-emptively halt a species listing.

"I'm not aware of any administration that has taken the position that Congress should get involved in the question of list or not list a species," he said.



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