The House of Representatives is out for its summer recess, but before it left, it passed a damaging bill through the House Appropriations Committee. The bill is supposed to be providing funding for natural resource and environment programs. But this bill is practically a mockery of its intended purpose: it includes more than more than two dozen damaging policy provisions, called “riders,” that could put our wildlife, land, air, and water at risk. Here’s a breakdown:
Sage-Grouse Endangerment Rider
This rider would block all four species and populations of sage-grouse in the West from being protected under the Endangered Species Act for at least a year. This stalling tactic could come at a cost. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has already proposed to list two grouse populations: the Gunnison sage-grouse and the bi-state sage-grouse. Populations for each of these grouse have declined to just 5,000 birds (a perilously low number for grouse species), and remaining birds occur on mere fragments of their historic range. Postponing listing for either of these birds could threaten their survival and delay their recovery. The same rider would also prevent FWS from even considering greater sage-grouse and the Columbia Basin sage-grouse for possible listing under the ESA for at least another year, even though both populations have already waited more than decade for a listing decision! Appropriations riders are only supposed to be in effect for one year. However, once riders like this one are included in one appropriations bill, they are often extended in subsequent years, which could delay protection indefinitely.
The Sage-Grouse Endangerment Rider could also stall current conservation efforts for these birds. Planning efforts are presently underway to balance land uses with sage-grouse conservation on tens of millions of acres in the West – but only because listing decisions were expected soon. These planning processes could unravel if sage-grouse listing decisions are delayed.
All of these grouse have lost huge swaths of habitat. Most sage-grouse range has been grazed, plowed, sprayed, burned, drilled, developed, driven over and mined, and remaining habitat has been fragmented and degraded by weeds, unnatural fire, conifer encroachment, utility corridors, roads and fences. These imperiled birds need help, and fast.
Anti-National Wildlife Refuge Rider
This insidious rider would completely block the National Wildlife Refuge System from expanding or creating new refuges without congressional approval – and we all know how productive Congress can be. Across the country, wildlife needs more protected habitat and wildlife enthusiasts are looking for more places to visit and enjoy. In these times, Congress should be facilitating the growth of the National Wildlife Refuge System, not undermining it.
Congress already holds the purse strings when it comes to getting more funding for managing refuges or adding new land to them, and the public already has a role in that process. The current system for refuge expansion is inclusive, transparent, responsive to the needs of wildlife and already involves considerable congressional oversight. This proposal would move the process to Washington, D.C, and introduce national politics into what has been a locally-led, science- and community-based process for more than 100 years. At a time when 6,000 acres of open space, including wildlife habitat, is lost each day, we need the flexibility to administratively create wildlife refuges when necessary.
Other Harmful Riders
Here is just a sampling of what the other anti-environmental riders in the bill could do:
- Cut off funding for Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, a Fish and Wildlife Service initiative to address large-scale complex threats to natural resources such as climate change, drought and invasive species across multiple jurisdictions (such as state, local and tribal governments) at the landscape level.
- Make lead bullets and lead fishing tackle exempt from regulation under the Toxic Substances Control Act, even though spent ammunition is one of the largest sources of lead entering the environment, poisoning millions of birds and thousands of mammals each year.
- Keep new rules from being made to restrict the commercial trade of ivory in the U.S., even though tens of thousands of African elephants have been slaughtered for their ivory over the past five years by poachers and criminal networks.
- Prevent the government from creating carbon emission standards for new and existing power plants, a crucial initiative under the Clean Air Act needed to address climate change.
- Limit the power federal land managers have to close public lands like refuges or parks to fishing, hunting and recreational shooting, even though these closures are made in the interest of public safety and conservation.
If this bill were enacted as written, it would be devastating for our nation’s wildlife and the environment. Fortunately, a bill being developed in the Senate does not contain these damaging riders. Later this year, Congress will have to finalize all the funding bills, and Defenders will be working to ensure that the destructive House provisions are removed from any final bill. Stay tuned in the months ahead: we’ll need your help in contacting your representatives and senators and requesting that they oppose these destructive riders.
Mary Beth Beetham is the Director of Legislative Affairs at Defenders of Wildlife