Five Issues to Watch for Wildlife as Congress Returns

Congress has returned from August recess and we are prepping for what could be a decisive time for our cherished wildlife and wild places. 

Congress is back in session and while its immediate focus will be on relief funding for Gulf states in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, anti-wildlife Members of Congress are sure to reignite their continued attacks on our wildlife and wild places. Defenders will be fending off attempts to undermine the Endangered Species Act (ESA), attacks on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as assaults on the National Wildlife Refuge System and other public lands that provide important wildlife habitat.

Here are the top five issues we are keeping an eye on in the coming weeks and months, and how they could affect wildlife and their habitats.

Funding the Government

One of Congress’s highest priorities now that they’re back is to pass legislation to keep the federal government running. Current funding for the federal government is set to run out on September 30. We expect initial supplemental funding for Hurricane Harvey relief, which could possibly be attached to a clean debt ceiling increase, to pass as soon as this week. We will likely also see a clean temporary bill to fund the federal government while Congress works on the final full year funding bill. A quick note about “clean” bills: when Congress refers to passing a clean bill that means a bill free of riders or amendments that are often used to delay the decision-making process or pass legislation that would otherwise not get through on their own.

As part of their efforts to move forward on a final full-year bill to fund the government, the House of Representatives is expected to consider legislation this week to fund the Department of the Interior. This legislation already contains a number of anti-wildlife provisions, including: language that would delist wolves in the Great Lakes region and reaffirm a court decision that delisted wolves in Wyoming, a rider that would defund wolf conservation for all wolves in the continental United States, including the endangered Mexican gray wolf, and a provision that would prohibit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) from listing the greater sage-grouse as a threatened or endangered species under the ESA for at least a year. Additional anti-wildlife provisions have been offered on the bill and we are waiting to find out which ones will receive votes on the House floor. Later this month we may also see the Senate Appropriations Committee advance its version of the Interior funding bill which is likely to include anti-wildlife provisions.

We are also keeping close watch on and opposing efforts to fund a $1.6 billion border wall through the appropriations process. The proposed wall would not only cut through human communities, it would also bisect wildlife habitat like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and cut off crucial wildlife corridors, which would impede the recovery of species like the ferruginous pygmy-owl, Mexican gray wolf, ocelot, and jaguar.

So-Called HELP for Wildlife Act

Don’t be fooled by the name of this bill from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The so-called “HELP for Wildlife Act” would delist wolves in the Great Lakes region and reaffirm a court decision that delisted wolves in Wyoming. The American public overwhelmingly agrees that decisions about our threatened and endangered wildlife should be left up to scientists, not politicians. Adding insult to injury, the bill also contains language that would prohibit judicial review of these decisions. That means that even if Defenders and the public fight tooth and nail for wolves, we would not be able to file lawsuits to challenge these delisting decisions.

This bill would undermine the ESA, the rule of law, and the necessary role of science in protecting imperiled species. On top of it all, a bill like this – in the current political climate – could become a vehicle for even more attacks on wildlife.

Weakening the Endangered Species Act

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is expected to introduce a damaging bill that would weaken the ESA sometime this fall. During several committee hearings on the ESA earlier this year, Senator Barrasso said that he wants to “modernize” the statute. However, this is not some altruistic attempt to strengthen protections for imperiled species. In fact, this is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to weaken the ESA and undermine its effectiveness. If Senator Barrasso and other lawmakers really wanted to do more for our imperiled species, they would fully fund the ESA and urge the FWS to implement it more effectively.

The ESA has proven its value and efficacy time and time again – all while facing severe funding constraints. It is one of our nation’s most successful environmental laws, having helped prevent 99 percent of listed species from going extinct. The ESA has recovered beloved American species to our skies, lands and waters including the bald eagle, brown pelican, American alligator and humpback whale. These iconic species, as well as many others, rely on the protections afforded by the ESA. Any legislation to rewrite this effective and popular conservation act would have devastating impacts on our ability to protect and restore at-risk species. Defenders will continue to fight off all attempts to erode this landmark law.

Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The contentious battle to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development is expected to pick up again in the latter part of the fall, when Congress is expected to take up a budget resolution. The resolution is essentially a blueprint of targets for what the government should spend as well as what revenue it should try to raise in the upcoming fiscal year. These targets can be sent to congressional committees who then propose legislation that can affect spending or revenue. Recently, the House Budget Committee passed a budget resolution instructing the House Natural Resources Committee to raise revenues. This move should concern any friend of wildlife and public lands, because the House Natural Resources Committee could use this directive to push forward a provision that would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and exploration. This situation is especially concerning given that the Trump administration has been vocal about its desire to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

Drilling in the Arctic Refuge would put countless wildlife species as well as their habitat in grave danger. The Arctic Refuge is one of the largest intact ecosystems in America. At the biological heart of the refuge lies the 1.5-million-acre Coastal Plain, which provides vital habitat for grizzly bears, artic foxes, muskoxen, wolves and hundreds of species of birds that migrate from all 50 states and six continents. Known as “America’s Serengeti,” the Coastal Plain is the principal calving ground of one of North America’s last great caribou herds, and it is our most important onshore denning habitat for polar bears. Opening the refuge to drilling would subject wildlife to harmful seismic testing, increased infrastructure disturbances and vessel traffic, potential spills, and an increased human presence – all of which would disrupt this vulnerable ecosystem and could cause irreparable harm to wildlife and the environment.

We will continue to monitor the budget resolution and fight the inclusion of any provisions that harm the Arctic Refuge.

Amendments

We will also be closely tracking other bills that either already include anti-wildlife measures, or which could be loaded up with anti-wildlife amendments, including the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2810/S.1519), the Energy Bill (S. 1460), the Sportsmen’s Bill (H.R. 3668), and the Resilient Federal Forests Act (H.R. 2936).

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