Environment: Feds extend comment period on controversial Endangered Species Act changes

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Can the Endangered Species Act be improved?

Proposed changes would make it harder for citizen groups to petition for protection

Staff Report

FRISCO — The feds will give the public an extra two months to weigh in on proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, with a new comment deadline set for mid-September.

In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service published draft regulations, saying that the changes are aimed at improving transparency and inclusiveness. The move to freshen up the Endangered Species Act reflects “advances in conservation biology and genetics, as well as recent court decisions interpreting the Act’s provisions.”

But conservation groups say the new rule would make it harder for citizen groups to win protection for rare plants and animals by establishing more burdensome requirements for endangered species listing petitions.

 

The new rule would require petitioners to get the best available information from states when filing a petition, which could be challenging in many states that are generally opposed to protecting threatened plants and animals. The revisions would also promote the use of the best available science by requiring that as much information as possible related to proposed listing and critical habitat rule notices be posted online.

For more information on the proposed ESA petition regulations, go to http://www.fws.gov/home/feature/2015/proposed-revised-petition-regulations.pdf.

Public comments on the proposed rule will now be accepted on or before September 18, 2015.

Many of the country’s endangered species regulations date back to the 1980s, and need an overhaul. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe, the changes will address states’ concerns and boost voluntary conservation efforts, and add transparency to the listing process.

The proposal to revamp parts of the law comes against a backdrop of blistering attacks by anti-environmental Republicans in Congress who see endangered species regulations as hurdles to the exploitation of natural resources and have tried to undercut the bedrock law by preventing funding for environmental protection, and even going as far as trying to prevent federal agencies from making science-based listing decisions.

“The proposed policies would result in a more nimble, transparent and ultimately more effective Endangered Species Act,” Ashe said. “By improving and streamlining our processes, we are ensuring the limited resources of state and federal agencies are best spent actually protecting and restoring imperiled species.”

“The ESA has prevented the extinction of many imperiled species, promotes the recovery of many others, and conserves the habitats upon which they depend,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “But more work needs to be done on all levels. We need everyone’s help locally and globally to reverse declining populations and lift species out of danger. ”

The effort will focus on recovering species and strive to make administrative and regulatory improvements. The Services are not seeking any legislative changes to the Act, because the agencies believe that implementation can be significantly improved through rulemaking and policy formulation.

Details

The changes would provide greater clarity to the public and states on what information would best inform the evaluation of a species’ status and result in better coordination with state wildlife agencies, which often have unique information and insights on imperiled species.

As part of the Administration’s ongoing efforts, the Services will also be unveiling additional proposals over the coming year to achieve four broad goals:

  1. Improving science and increasing transparency. To improve public understanding of and engagement in ESA listing processes, the Services will:
    • Strengthen procedures to ensure that all information that can be publicly disclosed related to proposed listing and critical habitat rule notices will be posted online; and
    • Adopt more rigorous procedures to ensure consistent, transparent, and objective peer-review of proposed decisions.
  2. Incentivizing voluntary conservation efforts. Voluntary conservation programs, such as Safe Harbor agreements and Candidate Conservation Agreements, can improve conditions for listed and at-risk species, and conservation banking can make listed species and their habitats assets for landowners. The Services will:
    • Update guidance on the use of these proactive tools to establish consistent standards; and
    • Adopt a policy promoting the expanded use of conservation banking and other advance mitigation tools.
  3. Focusing resources to achieve more successes. The Services will work to focus limited resources on activities that will be most impactful. These actions include:
    • NOAA’s launch of  a new initiative to focus resources on eight of the nation’s most vulnerable marine species with the goal of reducing, stabilizing, or reversing their rate of decline by 2020;
    • Proposed revisions to interagency consultation procedures to streamline the process for projects, such as habitat restoration activities, that result in a net conservation benefit for the species;
    • Updates to the Habitat Conservation Planning Handbook to make developing and permitting plans more efficient and timely.
  4. Engaging the States. State fish and wildlife agencies, by virtue of their responsibilities and expertise, are essential partners in efforts to conserve threatened and endangered species. The Services will:
    • Implement the aforementioned revised petition regulations to give states an opportunity to provide input prior to submission; and
    • Update policy regarding the role of state agencies to reflect advancements in collaboration between the Services and the States.

For more information on the proposed ESA petition regulations, go to http://www.fws.gov/home/feature/2015/proposed-revised-petition-regulations.pdf. Public comments on the proposed rule will be accepted on or before 60 days following its publication in the Federal Register.

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