ESA reform underway on the Hill. This week, E&E News took a look at Endangered Species Act (ESA) reform efforts being prepared in Washington, including some of the key players and actions to look for. The ESA has not been significantly updated since 1988, and the 115th Congress has prioritized making sweeping changes. House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said in 2016 that he wants to completely repeal and replace the law. So far this year, there have been piecemeal bills introduced in Congress and hearings held to kick-start the GOP’s overhaul of the act.
Larger efforts have also begun amongst Congressional aides and staffers. Leading the charge is Chairman Bishop and his staffers, as well as staffers for Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). In addition, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations staff director Rob Gordon has served during previous ESA reform battles and will take the lead providing counsel to lawmakers. According to E&E News, any reform legislation will need at least eight votes from Senate Democrats to beat a filibuster.
Sage grouse debates continue. Debates over how to balance sage grouse conservation and economic development continue in the west. In Utah, activists say the Bureau of Land Management should not offer possible oil and gas development where the sage grouse population is suffering. In Wyoming, while sage grouse numbers are lower than average, biologists say the population decrease is not a cause for concern.
In central Utah, potential oil and gas leasing in 15,000 acres in Juab County has raised concerns given declines in the Sheeprocks population of greater sage grouse. Groups such as the Western Watersheds Project argue the newly proposed oil and gas leasing by BLM contradicts sage grouse conservation efforts in the state. Advocates like Steve Holmer, vice president of policy at the American Bird Conservancy, states “This proposal ignores what the hard trigger in the Utah plan is telling us, that sagebrush country needs more conservation, not more drilling.” According to Deseret News, “BLM spokesman Ryan Sutherland said any expressions of industry interest will be sent to field offices to analyze protections consistent with resource management plans that deal with greater sage grouse.”
Meanwhile, over in Wyoming, state Game and Fish biologists are closely monitoring sage grouse numbers in Fremont County. The biologists say extreme weather such as strong wind and heavy rain factor into the population’s ups and downs. This year’s count is “lower than average,” but according to biologist Stan Harter “the reason is most likely last years, wet spring damaged hens’ first tries at a nest and second, the nests don’t hatch as many chicks, showing fewer birds is normal.”
In the News
FWS rejects petitions for bear, tortoise species. E&E News (sub req’d). The Fish and Wildlife Service today rejected requests to protect a Southeast bear species and increase protections for a tortoise in the Southwest. Nearly 20 conservation groups and a half-dozen scientists petitioned FWS last year to list the Florida black bear under the Endangered Species Act. They claimed the state’s largest land mammal is at risk from habitat loss, vehicles and state-sanctioned hunts. But in a notice set to be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register, FWS said “the petition does not present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing the Florida black bear may be warranted.” In the notice, FWS also rejected for the same reason an emergency petition filed nearly 15 years ago to reclassify the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise as endangered, a higher level of protection under the Endangered Species Act. Note: Fox 13 News, Orlando Sentinel, Bradenton Herald and Tampa Bay Times also report. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services has issued a press release.
Virginia gas pipeline project clears hurdle. Chesapeake Bay Journal. Developers of a disputed natural gas pipeline project across Virginia cleared a major regulatory hurdle recently, as the U.S. Forest Service gave its go-ahead to plans to tunnel through the Blue Ridge Mountains to avoid popular attractions like the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, meanwhile, left Atlantic Coast Pipeline opponents perplexed by seemingly contradictory statements about the degree of scrutiny state regulators intend to give to nearly 2,000 stream crossings planned along the project’s 600-mile route. Meanwhile, opponents have weighed in over the past few months with complaints that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff did a poor job of evaluating the potential environmental harm the project could do. FERC’s draft environmental impact statement says five species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act would be adversely impacted by the pipeline’s construction and operation. They are the Indiana and Northern long-eared bats, the Roanoke logperch, running buffalo clover and the Madison Cave isopod. Dominion spokesman Aaron F. Ruby said that the company has “coordinated very closely” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop appropriate conservation measures for these species.
White-nosed syndrome found in Oklahoma bats for the first time. Tulsa World. White-nose syndrome, a disease that kills bats, has been confirmed for the first time in Oklahoma. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed the disease from a skin biopsy of a tricolored bat, one of two bats tested from a privately owned cave in Delaware County this winter, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation reported Monday. The official finding makes Oklahoma the 31st state to record the disease that has steadily spread westward, killing millions of bats, after it was first detected in New York in 2006-’07. Texas and Nebraska also saw their first confirmed cases this year. Biologists say the disease does not infect humans, but it can be spread to new areas by people who go exploring in caves. The fungus that causes the syndrome was first recorded in Oklahoma caves in 2015, but bats that are swabbed by biologists during winter population surveys did not test positive at that time, said Jena Donnell, wildlife diversity information specialist with the Wildlife Department.
Top Bishop aide to advise Ryan on energy, environment. E&E News (sub req’d). A top House Natural Resources Committee aide is leaving to serve as an adviser on energy and environment issues to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Kiel Weaver, staff director for the Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, heads to Ryan’s office on May 1, Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) announced today. “Kiel is a Capitol Hill veteran whose experience building consensus and setting policy will be essential as we work to strengthen our nation’s energy sector,” Ryan said. William Ball, currently a professional staffer on the Natural Resources panel handling oceans and fisheries issues, will replace Weaver as subcommittee staff director.
Groups warn feds that turbines could harm coastal birds. E&E News (sub req’d). Conservation groups are concerned about how offshore wind farms could affect endangered birds that forage up and down the East Coast. The American Bird Conservancy, several local Audubon societies and other groups sent a letter last week to the Trump administration, emphasizing the need for a full environmental impact statement on each wind farm project. They point out that the roseate tern — a bird listed under the Endangered Species Act — sometimes ventures miles offshore to find food for chicks. Their letter calls on the Interior Department to release information on how the terns will be protected as companies develop offshore wind energy in federal waters. “Hundreds of thousands of birds and bats are being lost annually to onshore wind facilities, and offshore wind, if poorly placed, has the potential to be just as destructive,” Michael Hutchins, director of ABC’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy Program, said in a statement. “At the very least, seasonal shutdowns should be required mitigation, since the terns’ distribution and behavior is predictable.”