Congress' Assault on Endangered Species Act Does Not Mirror Public Opinion

This April 2011 photo provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife shows a male and female Gunnison sage grouse near Gunnison, Col
This April 2011 photo provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife shows a male and female Gunnison sage grouse near Gunnison, Colo. The obscure, chicken-sized bird, best known for its mating dance, could help determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. Senate in November. The federal government is considering listing the greater sage grouse as an endangered species next year. Doing so could limit development, energy exploration, hunting and ranching on the 165 million acres of the bird’s habitat across 11 Western states. (AP Photo/Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Mike Danzenbaker)

Since January, over 80 legislative proposals have been proposed in Congress to dramatically reduce protections for imperiled wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act. While most are standalone bills, many are extraneous amendments attached to must-pass legislation such as the authorization bill for the Department of Defense, or the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies, where they don't belong. If adopted, these measures would cripple the Endangered Species Act by having politicians making biological decisions best left in the hands of government scientists, undermining the conservation of imperiled wildlife for decades to come.

Many may be surprised to learn about Congress' closeted assault on imperiled wildlife. The public deserves to know because when it comes to this issue, Congressional action is directly contradicting public opinion.

A nationwide poll released this summer found an overwhelming majority of Americans, 90 percent of the registered voters polled, support the Endangered Species Act. Even in specific states where special economic interests have sensationalized species listing decisions, support for the Endangered Species Act remains extraordinarily high.

Four separate, state-specific polls surveyed registered voters in Colorado, Missouri, Montana and Indiana finding broad-based support for the Endangered Species Act extending across the political spectrum: 80 percent of Coloradans; 74 percent of Missourians; 75 percent of Montanans and 83 percent of Indianans support the ESA.

Taken alone, these are compelling numbers, but the four polls also find voters have strong opinions about who should make key decisions under the Endangered Species Act. Because a number of anti-ESA legislators currently seek to strip specific species of their Endangered Species Act protections, the polls asked residents whom they believe should determine which species should be protected under the Act. Across all four states, the strong majority of respondents believe it should be biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, not members of Congress. In short, Americans want politicians to leave science to the scientists when it comes to endangered species conservation.

Polluting industries and special economic interests - and with alarming frequency, their willing allies in Congress -- always roll out dire predictions of economic doom in the face of regulations or new ESA listings. But the poll results show that support for endangered species conservation remains strong and that the public just doesn't buy the argument that we have to choose between jobs and conservation.

Here's just one example: last year the Gunnison sage-grouse was listed as a threatened species in Colorado. Industry, big oil and politicians tried to strike fear in the public, proclaiming that protecting the bird would cause economic devastation throughout the affected region. The anti-ESA interests hammered the public with their message that a choice had to be made between jobs and imperiled wildlife conservation. Even so, this recent poll found seventy-eight percent (78%) of registered voters in Colorado reject the notion that the Endangered Species Act "hurts the economy and destroys jobs," believing instead that "the law is necessary" and that "we can protect our natural heritage for future generations while growing our economy and creating jobs." Just like the Oregon Spotted Frog or the Preble's meadow jumping mouse in Colorado, the case of the Gunnison sage-grouse is turning out just the same: despite hysterical claims of economic doom and gloom leading up to the listing of a species, in fact none of that has ever happened after the listing. The Gunnison sage-grouse was ultimately listed - getting the federal protections it needs to survive - and the economy of the affected area has moved on, pretty much as it did before.

So next time you hear politicians tell you the Endangered Species Act is a huge job killer, or that we can't list specific species without dire economic consequences, pause a moment to think about who stands to benefit from any weakening of the act or species' protections. Because the answer is almost invariably polluting and other economic special interests. And sadly, too many in Congress are in the pocket of these corporate entities, doing their bidding on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

Congress must remember where the public stands on these issues and represent their constituents instead of special interests. Thankfully, Congressman Grijalva and 91 other members of Congress recently took a stand against the House majority's continued assault on our imperiled wildlife by sending a letter to the Obama administration urging it to reject any FY 2016 spending legislation that includes attacks on the Endangered Species Act.

This show of support is exactly what we need as negotiations on a final spending bill continue this fall. As Congressman Grijalva and the others that signed this letter urge, instead of destroying our wildlife heritage, our elected officials must work to protect it. Our proud tradition of protecting America's imperiled wildlife should be a congressional priority, not an item to be bargained away at the budget negotiating table, or otherwise slipped silently into must-pass legislation.