Utah Rep. Rob Bishop is shepherding five bills through Congress aimed squarely at dismantling the Endangered Species Act piece by piece. Bishop has long advocated for changes to the act and with a Republican majority he may get his way.
In 2014, he said the act was co-opted by special interest groups as a tool to “snuff out” multiple use of lands and resources. Earlier this month, Bishop said the act has “never been used for the rehabilitation of species.”
Bishop is wrong. And this should matter to Utah residents, as the state is ground zero for legal assaults against the act.
A group of Cedar City property owners who call themselves the People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners have requested that the U.S. Supreme Court review a 10th Circuit Court of Appeal decision that sided with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s placement of Utah prairie dogs on ESA in 1973.
The Utah prairie dog is a keystone species that is critical to maintaining ecological balance in the region. They serve as prey for many species including golden eagles and their burrows provide homes for a diverse array of animals. Under federal protection, the species rebounded to about 26,000 in 2015 but residents killed about 3,500 in 2015 and last year before the appeals court halted the slaughter.
The appeals decision reversed a 2014 decision by a Utah District Court judge who held that ESA protections for the Utah prairie dogs on state and private lands was unconstitutional. The district court decision conflicted with five Circuit Court of Appeals rulings, which determined that ESA regulations of a species is constitutional even if the species is found only in one state.
Considering that a majority of endangered and threatened species live only in one state, if the district court decision held, it would fundamentally rollback ESA protections.
As the court battle plays out, Bishop has gone on the offensive. As chair of the Natural Resources Committee, he has thrown his full support behind a group of bills that weaken the act. One bill, called the SAVES Act, would do the opposite and actually put elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas, tigers and giant pandas at risk. Another alarming bill would gut the very heart of the ESA by allowing government agencies to preclude the listing of threatened species based on economic interests. Others would make it tougher for citizens to sue on behalf of endangered species and strip safeguards for gray wolves.
ESA protects more than 1,600 animal and plant species in the U.S. and Bishop could not be more wrong when he says the act has never been used to rehabilitate the animals listed on it. Quite the contrary. The act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of species under its protection, and more than 100 species on the list have shown a 90 percent recovery rate. It has allowed for the designation of millions of acres of critical habitat that has been crucial for survival of species
What proponents of these bills should be paying attention to is that most Americans actually want to protect and strengthen ESA, according to a poll by the Center for Biological Diversity. They should also know that wildlife watching activities pumped $1 billion into Utah’s economy, generating almost $60 million in state and local tax revenue, according to data from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Bishop’s attempt to disembowel the ESA not only imperils Utah’s unique wildlife but more than one thousand species across the U.S. as well as state coffers.
Priscilla Feral, Darien, Conn., is the President of Friends of Animals, an international wildlife advocacy group that has worked to protect the Utah prairie dog ESA status and has helped place several animals on the list. Michael Harris, Centennial, Colo., is the director of Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program.