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Texas calls for aid to put science into the Endangered Species Act

- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2013

SOLUTION MAKERS:

A top Texas official says it's time to improve the science that determines which animals get listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, calling on Congress to create a $50 million fund for independent research that also would factor in the economic damage to communities when a species is designated for protection.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs told The Washington Times that her state has set aside $5 million to try to fight spurious listings, and said it's time for the federal government to give the states some help.

"The burden of proof has shifted and you have to recognize that — therefore, enhance your tool box, and your tool box has to be science because you are not going to win in the courts," Mrs. Combs said in a meeting last week with editors and reporters as part of The Times' "Solution Makers" interviews.

The Endangered Species Act is drawing increasing scrutiny from lawmakers in Washington and in state capitals across the country who say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is overwhelmed by requests and lawsuits, and often ends up making decisions that aren't underpinned by sound scientific data.

Once a species is listed as facing extinction, then federal officials must move to protect its habitat, and that often conflicts with economic development and local landowners — a reality that elected leaders are trying to deal with in Texas and other states.

Mrs. Combs visited with members of the House and Senate last week on Capitol Hill to pitch her idea for a $50 million National Science Fund to conduct independent research.

"You need a science fund to do the work that [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services] cannot do, has not the capacity to do," she said. "I said, 'It needs to be peer-reviewed, so it is not bought and paid for by Bob, my uncle.' And I got some traction on this. So I am hoping they do have a science fund."

In the four-decade history of the Endangered Species Act, nearly 1,500 species have been listed, but fewer than five dozen have been removed from the endangered list. Ten of those became extinct, 18 were erroneously listed and the rest were deemed to have recovered. Giant political and economic fights have broken out of moves to protect species such as the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest and the snail darter in the Little Tennessee River.

Facing a growing backlog, the Interior Department agreed in 2011 to make final decisions within six years on whether 251 species deserve protection.

Mrs. Combs and leaders in other states argue that the federal government doesn't have the capacity to decide all of those cases, and she said the standards for deciding what scientific standards and data to use are ill-defined.

Patrick A. Parenteau, the former director of the Vermont Law School's Environmental Law Center, said there are often problems with the quality of the science used to justify an endangered listing, and said an independent review makes sense.

He said one issue is that the science itself can be confusing. He pointed to the case of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, found in Colorado and Wyoming, where the endangered listing had been challenged. Researchers are divided about the basic question of whether the local mouse found there qualifies as a separate "species" that can be protected under the federal law.

"You would think you could get a group of scientists to sit down and say, 'This is the same mouse,' but they can't," Mr. Parenteau said.

Earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it would keep the mouse on the endangered list, saying "the best available scientific and commercial information" didn't justify removing it. The service also said that genetic studies "confirm that the Preble's is a valid subspecies," which means it's able to be listed.

Mr. Parenteau said climate change is altering habitats, but the standards for determining protection remain blunt.

"I think the real problem is that we have a lot of species that are dying," he said. "A lot of people have said, 'We are not going to be able to save these species, is there a way to make more informed decisions on which ones are more important than other?' But no one has stepped up to the plate to answer that question."

Professor Daniel Rohlf, of the Lewis and Clark Law School's environmental and natural resources program, said having states like Texas promote more science is welcome. But he defended the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision-making.

"In my view, the species that are listed as endangered, in general those determinations are typically well supported by science," he said.

He said the fact that Fish and Wildlife Service mandate to use the best science available essentially forces the agency to consider whatever credible research is out there.

"If Fish and Wildlife were to wait until there was complete certainty with respect to any decision that the agency makes, the agency would never make a decision," he said. "Some people might support that way to go. That is not really consistent with the statute. The statute is pretty clear that Congress intended for Fish and Wildlife to take a precautionary approach toward protecting the species."

Mrs. Combs isn't new to the issue of endangered species. In 2006, as commissioner of the Texas Agriculture Department, she worked with private landowners and conservative groups to establish a Recovery Credit System as a response to concerns over military exercises encroaching on the habitat of two birds: the golden-cheeked warbler and the black vireo.

The program provided private landowners with financial incentives to protect the habitat for the birds on their property, offsetting losses elsewhere in the state.

"They also put some boots on the ground," she said. "They discovered that instead of there being 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 birds, there is 200,000. Had they done the science at the front end, they never would have listed the golden-cheeked warbler or the black-capped vireo. The science was so deeply flawed."

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