By Tom Venesky
Two bills that would change the state’s Endangered and Threatened Species Act have made it out of committee and are currently on the House and Senate floors awaiting a vote. In the interim, the bills have sparked much debate among biologists, conservationists, hunters, anglers and industry. Following are three positions on the bills from hunting and angling groups (due to length, some comments were condensed):
Contingent of sportsmen’s groups oppose changes to endangered species act
From Trout Unlimited:
Pennsylvania’s largest sportsmen’s groups joined forces to send a strong message to members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly: Hunters and anglers throughout the Commonwealth oppose House Bill 1576 and Senate Bill 1047.
The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, the Pennsylvania Trapper’s Association, and the Pennsylvania Chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quality Deer Management Association, the Izaak Walton League of America and Pheasants Forever, sent a letter to Pennsylvania legislators today urging them to put science before politics, when it comes to fish and wildlife conservation. Collectively, these groups represent more than 100,000 sportsmen and women in Pennsylvania — a constituency that generates nearly $1.5 billion annually for the state’s economy.
At issue are House Bill 1576 and Senate Bill 1047 — two bills that would fundamentally change how the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission and the Pennsylvania Game Commission operate when it comes to establishing protections for sensitive fish and wildlife in the commonwealth.
“Both the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission currently have a transparent, rigorous process for listing species and wild trout streams that is based on science, while at the same time limiting bureaucracy, and overregulation,” said Melody Schell of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “These bills seek to bury our commissions in regulatory obstacles that will not fix the problems that the proponents of the bill are seeking to address.”
The bills would eliminate the independence of Pennsylvania Fish and Boat and Game Commission by subjecting their decisions to designate wild trout streams, or to list threatened or endangered species, to review by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and legislative committees.
“It is clear that the proposed bills are intended to slow down, or even bring to a halt, the process of listing wild trout streams and as a consequence, streams where wild trout are present are left unprotected, ” said Brian Wagner, president of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited. “As the recent Act 13 Supreme Court ruling pointed out, the Commonwealth has an affirmative duty to protect natural resources — including fish and wildlife — for current and future generations.”
Pennsylvania has a long and proud tradition of allowing independent commissions staffed by nationally-recognized wildlife and aquatic experts to manage the fish and wildlife of the Commonwealth without undue political interference. These bills would end that tradition and undermine the longstanding independence of the Game Commission and the Fish & Boat Commission and severely limit their ability to protect Pennsylvania’s threatened and endangered species—opening up the door for increased federal oversight and potential loss of federal funds under the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Funds.
Group supports changes to endangered species act
From Unified Sportsmen:
The legislative debate over two companion bills in the Pennsylvania General Assembly that would modify the way the commonwealth adds to its list of threatened and endangered (T&E) species has, at times, been educated and rational. At other times, however, it has been relegated to posturing and fear mongering, by both the state game commission and special interest groups.
The two largest sportsmen’s associations, the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania (USP) and the 50,000 member Pennsylvania State Camp Lessee’s Association (PSCLA), strongly support the passage of the Endangered Species Coordination Act (HB 1576 and SB 1047), and encourage the public to look beyond the bogus claims the bills would hurt plant and wildlife conservation, and threaten federal funds.
Our groups also count ourselves among the most committed conservation organizations in Pennsylvania, using the tools of research and science to guide decisions on land use, wildlife management, and habitat protection and development. It is these principles that are at the core of this legislation, which will require both the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to publicly provide the scientific reasons for proposing species for T&E status and subject those reasons to public scrutiny. It is also important to note that this proposed law does not impact federally listed T&E species – plants and creatures that are protected by federal law.
This proposal brings much-needed independent agency oversight to these decisions now made with none by PGC and PFBC. These commissions’ criticisms of the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) as political appointees not to be trusted with reviewing these commissions’ T&E species decisions protests too much – these commissioners are also politically appointed. Our investigative research clearly reveals that federal Pittman-Robertson funds to Pennsylvania will not be affected by IRRC’s involvement in these important decisions.
USP believes, as one of Pennsylvania’s largest organizations representing hunters, trappers, and fishermen (the original conservationists), that it is possible to protect the environment and wildlife and at the same time safely grow industry and produce jobs for our economy, the primary goal of this legislation. PSCLA joins our organization in supporting the bill.
For too long, ‘extremist’ environmental organizations – lacking a basic foundation of education or scientific proof regarding the positions they advance – have been wrongly influencing state agencies in a goal to permanently prevent various groups from using our state forests. By using T&E species and other ridiculously absurd excuses, they continue to strive at their goal to banish state camps from our state forests.
These groups have members and individuals employed in key positions within our state agencies, including PGC and PFBC. Enacting this law would start to curb the constant harassment we have received from a specific state agency. We, the public, own these forests. State Camp owners and our members have been conserving our forests for over a century.
The PGC is disingenuous with its opposition to this proposal, as evidenced by its lack of action or even interest during a five-year review of the Eastern cougar in 22 states east of the Mississippi by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2007. The PGC refused to cooperate and participate in this landmark study of the most well-known animal on the federal Endangered Species Act list. On June 28, 2007, Marvin Moriarity, regional director for USFWS, wrote in a letter to former U.S. Congressman Christopher P. Carney that the PGC did not submit any information (to add to the five-year review), and that the USFWS expected to complete the review in the fall of that year.
Additional communication following this June affirmation by the USFWS that no effort had been made by PGC to participate in the five-year review revealed the service had sent further requests to the PGC for information on cougars and mountain lions in Pennsylvania. To quote a Nov. 12 communication from Martin Miller, chief, Threatened and Endangered Species:
I can’t remember if I ever got back to you with an answer as to whether PGC ever provided information for the eastern cougar 5-year review. They did not. Mark McCullough contacted the PGC to encourage them to submit information, but we did not receive a response.”
The PGC deliberately declined to participate in this critical scientific study by the USFWS, despite an 11-month window of time and repeated efforts to obtain comment. Sadly, this is but one example of PGC’s lack of transparency and scientific study with endangered species.
While the PGC sent press releases about the cougar study to every paper in Pennsylvania to inform citizens they can participate, the real purpose of this federal study by USFWS was to collect scientific data and information from all 22 game commissions east of the Mississippi. The PGC does not practice what it preaches and it’s time to shed some light and heat on the commission’s underhanded dealings with the Commonwealth’s T&E species listing process through the participation of the Independent Regulatory Review Commission.
— Bill Miller, Steve Mohr, Dennis Wydra
Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania
Executive director cites concerns about bill
John Arway, Pa. Fish and Boat Commission
We take our responsibility to protect T&E species very seriously, and we are committed to determining the appropriate listing levels for all species under our jurisdiction. In fulfilling this charge, we are constantly refining the lists through open and transparent public processes based on sound scientific data. This leads to removing as well as adding species. During the last five years, we have added 13 new species, but have also de-listed 11 species from the state’s threatened, endangered, and candidate species lists.
Both threatened and endangered species listings and wild trout stream designations are factually based and driven by available data and consistent and objective scientific standards.
Within the umbrella of wild trout streams, there are a series of classifications (Classes A through D), which are defined by the density of wild trout found within them. Simply put, the more fish the higher the stream classification. Class A wild trout streams support the greatest density of wild trout. They are the best of our best wild trout streams and account for only between 5-10 percent of all wild trout streams and 0.5 percent of all streams in our Commonwealth.
Please keep in mind that DEP regulations that rely on information about stream designations are already subject to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC). Like T&E listings, the decisions about whether streams contain wild trout are currently being made based on sound science practiced by our best government, academic, and industry scientists with the highest degree of attention paid to detailed data collection and analysis, and completed using an open and transparent public process.
To subject either process to IRRC would be duplicative, redundant government and a waste of time and money for both business and government.
In my 33 years with the PFBC, I cannot cite one example of where we have not been able to resolve a conflict with industry on a T&E species issue.
The PFBC should retain the authority to manage data and make recommendations for species under our jurisdiction. As the agency with statutory responsibility for fish, reptiles, amphibians, and other aquatic organisms, we have staff specialists with the required levels of expertise to make decisions about the acceptability and use of data and the steps needed to protect Pennsylvania’s aquatic resources.
While much of the media attention has focused on T&E species, we remain equally concerned about the prospect of subjecting wild trout stream listings to the provisions of the bill. The unnecessary delays and potential politicization of these science-based decisions would have ramifications to individuals beyond those who care about wild trout.
To postpone or never require the levels of protection dictated by scientific data could lead to increased water quality degradation in headwater areas where most wild trout waters are found, which would impact downstream communities, most notably those which rely on these streams as sources of drinking water.
House Bill 1576 was amended in committee in November and has yet to be considered by the full House. House Bill 1576 remains critically flawed even as amended. If it would become law in its current form, it would be a reversal of Pennsylvania’s proud conservation history.
The PFBC remains steadily opposed to any attempt to subject T&E species listings and wild trout stream designations to IRRC review.
We appreciated the amendment removing the Section 9 repealer from House Bill 1576, but a related and similarly troubling provision remains in the bill. Even as amended, Section 6 allows state and local governments to consider impacts to only listed species and their critical habitats when reviewing applications for permits or taking other actions.
In addition to records of federal and state-listed T&E species, PNDI includes thousands of records pertaining to unlisted, but otherwise rare, species in Pennsylvania that warrant protection. And these rare, unlisted species, often referred to as species of special concern, are given consideration, and thus protection, under numerous DEP statutes, regulations, and policies.1
While the threatened and endangered species actions of our agency are important first lines of defense to keep species off the federal list, other Commonwealth environmental laws and regulations are predicated on our protection of those species under our agency’s jurisdiction.
Changing the rules on the way these rare species are listed essentially removes the foundation from which all these other state laws and regulations were promulgated. Section 6 would effectively revoke DEP’s ability to protect not only these rare and unlisted species, but also common species such as our state fish – the brook trout.
The adequacy of state programs is part of the calculus for federal listings. A state with greater conservation measures is looked upon more favorably by federal decision-makers, since it gives them a higher level of confidence that the species will not become threatened or endangered locally and contribute to the need for a federal listing.
If we effectively conserve them here at the state level, we can prevent regional and range-wide declines that require federal listings and more costly, time-consuming, and less flexible federal requirements.
The recent landmark Act 13 ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court offers yet another reason to not tinker with the Commonwealth’s long-standing approaches to conserving threatened and endangered species and wild trout streams. While the full effect of the decision is still being analyzed and may not become fully apparent for years to come, what is clear is that the Court gave groundbreaking deference to Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution – our Environmental Rights Amendment.
The listings of rare species and wild trout streams are strictly science-based. Either an animal or plant is rare, threatened, or endangered, or it is not based upon how many do or don’t exist, and a stream either supports or doesn’t support wild trout.
I agree that society wants us to look at other socio-economic factors in the decisions we make about how we decide to protect or not protect our natural resources. Currently all of those protection regulations for both T&E species and wild trout streams go through IRRC after they are considered by the EQB.
Upon passing IRRC and the Standing Committee’s review, they are then administered by DEP. We need to allow the science behind the listing judgment to stand alone and focus on whether the public wants us to protect these species the way our current constitution, law, and regulations require.
The legislature is attempting to remove keystone principles in a decision that is purely science-based instead of taking on the challenge head on of changing the laws and regulations that your predecessors originally passed. To pass House Bill 1576 or Senate Bill 1047 would be to reverse 40 years of consistent, transparent, and accountable conservation.