Congress, when it isn’t quarreling about legislation, wrangling over budgets or grilling the administration, writes reports. Hundreds of reports, often focused on emerging or contentious issues of interest to the public.
Political caucuses write reports, Congressional committees write reports, and even individual Senators and House members write reports—all in an effort to persuade fellow legislators and voters to support their position on policy and legislation.
But have you ever wondered what’s in those reports? It would be reasonable to believe that any report produced by the United States Congress is accurate, supported by the best available information, and promotes the general welfare of our country. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
Last month an ad hoc group of House members dubbed the Endangered Species Act Congressional Working Group released one of those reports that warrant your suspicion. The oddly named “Report, Findings and Recommendations” is a 64-page critique of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that is riddled with errors and innuendo. The authors, including Representative Doc Hastings, Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, are long-time opponents of the ESA who have pressed for years to weaken the act.
Setting aside the usual, tired, groundless attacks on the ESA, the report also includes a number of “case studies” intended to support the authors’ recommendations for reform. One of them focused on the imperiled greater sage-grouse , a species of concern to Defenders and a bird we know a lot about. We reviewed the case study and were stunned by the numerous falsehoods and baseless contentions it contained.
Following are just a few excerpts from the sage-grouse case study and Defenders’ responses to them. This case study is an example of the faulty information presented throughout “Report, Findings and Recommendations.”
Report Claim: Conservation organizations have sued to force sage-grouse listing
“Litigious environmental groups, through numerous lawsuits dating back to 2003, have sought federal ESA protection for the greater sage-grouse for years. Between 1999 and 2003, environmental groups filed eight petitions to list the greater sage-grouse (GSG). The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) responded with a finding in 2005 that an ESA listing was “not warranted.” Five lawsuits against the FWS were filed in multiple courts challenging FWS’ determination.”
Reality: Politics have played a big role in sage-grouse listing, and they shouldn’t
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2005 “not warranted” listing determination for greater sage-grouse was heavily manipulated by political appointees in the Bush Administration. Only one lawsuit was filed to challenge the decision, in which the federal District Court of Idaho remanded it back to the Service, finding that it “…was tainted by the inexcusable conduct of one of its own executives, Julie MacDonald, [whose] tactics included everything from editing scientific conclusions to intimidating FWS staffers.” The Fish and Wildlife Service subsequently determined in 2010 that the sage-grouse does warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The grouse became a candidate for listing in 2011, and now the agency is committed to consider it for listing in 2015.
Report Claim: Listing sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act would cause economic ruin in the West
“The GSG is found in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming. Listing the GSG would directly impact land management, economies and domestic energy supplies and production in these states.”
Reality: Protecting imperiled species provides myriad economic benefits, while sage-grouse conservation plans would allow continued land use and development in sage-grouse range
Protecting imperiled species conserves ecosystems that support human communities and economies , providing clean water, crop pollination, flood protection, and biodiversity important to pharmaceutical and agricultural research.
States and federal agencies have initiated a number of planning efforts to conserve sage-grouse and their habitat. Although there are problems with some of the plans, both state and draft federal conservation plans would allow continued land use and development in sage-grouse range. Some activities may be managed to avoid impacts on priority habitat, the most essential areas for conserving the species.
Report Claim: Listing will undermine state conservation efforts for sage-grouse
“Several western states have …embarked on range-wide efforts to protect sage grouse habitat in an effort to avoid federal listing. The investment of time and resources at the state level has been considerable and according to one state wildlife manager, amounts to “numbers that we have never seen before in my profession being committed by a State to a single species.” Nonetheless…these state efforts still face the uncertainty of a listing that could undermine state efforts to conserve the GSG and discourage similar state efforts in the future.”
Reality: Federal listing would complement state conservation efforts for sage-grouse
The Endangered Species Act does not in any way impede state and local efforts to conserve listed species. In fact, species listing is usually accompanied by increased funding for research, population monitoring and habitat restoration that supports state and local conservation actions. The act also establishes processes for recognizing existing scientifically viable, legally sufficient conservation plans as preferred conservation strategies for listed species (e.g., Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances, Safe Harbor agreements).
Unfortunately, Congressional reports and condemnations about the Endangered Species Act are often without merit, which is why Defenders of Wildlife and our partners will remain vigilant about responding to them.
— Mark Salvo, Director of Federal Lands Conservation