Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon was in the nation's capital this week testifying about his desire to overhaul the Endangered Species Act. Correspondent Matt Laslo has the story on his testimony calling to upend that act - a message he delivered before Wyoming Senator John Barrasso's Environment and Public Works Committee.
Governor Gordon and Senator Barrasso teamed up this week to try and give Wyoming - and other states - more control over how the Endangered Species Act is implemented. And Governor Gordon made sure to tell Barrasso and his committee about the historic 11 state agreement reached in 2015 to save sage grouse.
"…private landowners, government agencies, non-governmental entities, industry citizens and the comment will all with a common aim of protecting the largest concentration of remaining grouse habitat in the country. It's working. Northeastern Wyoming sage grouse populations have improved of late, something that I can attest to you from seeing the birds in my own hall pasture over the course of the past year," Gordon said.
But there seems to be a flaw in his testimony: Sage grouse are witnessing an alarming decline in population, according to environmentalists. In fact, just this week the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project alerted federal agencies they plan to sue the federal government within 60 days unless the government reverses the trends. Still, this Wednesday Gordon testified that the sage grouse program should be expanded to two contentious larger mammals.
"Wyoming is home to several lightning rod species. Species like the carnivores that command national and international attention. The grey wolf and the grizzly bear have a marquee value that is mesmerizing. Perversely, some organizations who set forth to do good work, found the fundraising appeal of these stars irresistible," Gordon said.
Four years ago Barrasso got to work on this overhaul, which is now titled the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 2020.
"Our stakeholder feedback process made clear that at least one provision in my bill is a nonstarter for those groups and for the committee's minority. It also made clear that the same provision is a top priority for my home state of Wyoming," Barrasso said.
Barrasso now has a new target in his sites: And it's not necessarily the grizzly bears he wants delisted - it's the courts that have protected them.
"The grizzly bear in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is fully recovered. That's not just me saying it. President Bush, President Obama and President Trump all agree and each of those administrations have tried to delist the species. Yet activist federal judges have repeatedly intervened to overturn these delisting rules," Barrasso said.
Barrasso's legislation would "delay the ability of any federal court to overturn any delisting" decision over a five-year period where the animals would be monitored. But the top Democrat on the Environment Committee, Tom Carper of Delaware, doesn't like Barrasso's proposal.
"Fortunately, the Endangered Species Act is one of the nation's best tools to support improve and protect biodiversity," Carper said.
And Carper and other Democrats think Barrasso's legislation would be going backwards.
"I still struggle with fully understand how this legislation would support species recovery or serve the American public, in Delaware or in most other states," Carper said.
The debate over the Endangered Species Act has only heated up here in Washington since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg - and subsequently President Trump and Senate Republicans rush to quickly fill the seat with a conservative. Here's North Dakota Republican Kevin Cramer.
"A lot of people are wondering what's the main what's going to be the main issue when you talk to the President Trump's next nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States? Mine is going to be this issue. That is, what is the proper role of states, with its with our federal government in our federalist system, because I think we've lost track of it for decades and that erosion needs to be stopped and in I think, reversed and I think the Endangered Species Act is one of many exhibits," Cramer said.
Democrats say that's insane. New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker says the Endangered Species Act is needed more now than ever before.
"Let's recognize though, just have a global crisis we are in. We are in one of the handful going back to the dinosaurs, one of the handful of global crises. It's estimated right now that one in six species are threatened with extinction in this century alone," Booker said.
Booker says it's not just about the animals themselves - it's also about you and me.
"This is not just a crisis for wildlife, destruction of habitat, and loss of biodiversity is a threat to humanity. It's a threat to all of us because we rely upon nature for food, shelter, medicine, and so much more," Booker said.
Barrasso is chair though. And he knows the politics on climate change have rapidly evolved in recent years. He says he' willing to listen to those critics, but Barrasso isn't going to move a bill that doesn't upend the Endangered Species Act as we know it.
"Stakeholders have also sought a significant additional funding stream for wildlife conservation. I continue to be open to exploring this possibility," Barrasso said. "The funding levels must be reasonable, justified and paid for. They must also be part of a bill that modernizes the Endangered Species Act."