It was a long battle, but it's finally over: On Friday, Congress settled on the Fiscal Year 2016 "omnibus" budget bill. And unlike the original House and Senate versions covering the Department of the Interior and related agencies, the combined omnibus legislation was almost free of catastrophic anti-wildlife riders, making it a huge victory for imperiled species and the Endangered Species Act.
In fact, thanks to our conservation champions in Congress, the Obama administration and the tireless work of the conservation community, a whole slew of potential riders attacking our lands and wildlife was successfully blocked from inclusion in the final funding deal. Considering the unprecedented number of congressional attacks on our natural heritage this year, the fact that the omnibus made it through negotiations relatively free of anti-wildlife riders warrants congratulations all around.
The stakes were high. Proposals for the funding bill included riders that sought to unabashedly undermine the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by blocking new protections for imperiled species; removing protection for several threatened and endangered species like the gray wolf and northern long-eared bat; and forcing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to automatically delist species from the ESA if the agency could not complete a five year review for the species on time. These relentless attacks on a cornerstone environmental law were appalling and inappropriate.
The ESA wasn't the only conservation priority under threat. Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and the internationally recognized wildlife habitat it protects were also threatened by a rider that would have forced construction of an extremely destructive road through congressionally-designated wilderness in the heart of the refuge. The fight to protect Izembek's globally significant wetlands and pristine wilderness has been going on for years, and this rider was only the latest skirmish.
In addition, a National Rifle Association-backed rider that would have blocked the Service's newly proposed regulations to crack down on the illegal ivory trade was also kept out of the omnibus. And finally, a rider that would have blocked the Council on Environmental Quality's guidance for considering greenhouse gas emissions or climate change impacts in decisions made under the National Environmental Policy Act also failed to make it into the omnibus.
It is mind-boggling that lawmakers would even consider adding these destructive riders to national funding legislation.
So can we call the omnibus a home run? With so many aggressively anti-environment legislators in Congress, there are bound to be some disappointments.
Congress refused to include a much-needed fix to the ongoing problem of how the Forest Service funds wildfire control. While the bill includes additional funds for fighting fires in the next year, legislators missed an opportunity to move forward with a permanent and comprehensive fix that enjoyed broad bi-partisan support. Unfortunately, this important fix was held hostage by a few in Congress who wanted to add controversial and unnecessary logging provisions to the bill that undermined environmental safeguards on our national forests. While we are glad that Congress did not concede to pass these harmful forest management provisions, the very real problem of forest fire funding remains.
Congress has also blocked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from even considering listing the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act. This rider is a carryover from last year, which Congress passed even after FWS decided sage-grouse did not warrant listing in September. It is unfortunate that Congress chose to continue to intervene in a wildlife management concern that should be left to biologists.
The fight to protect wildlife is never over and we must remain vigilant, as many of these destructive proposals will certainly resurface again. Next year will also bring new challenges, and here at Defenders of Wildlife, we look forward to continuing our mission to protect America's wildlife heritage and contribute to international conservation efforts. But there's no denying it: as far as the omnibus is concerned, America's wildlife legacy has triumphed once again, and the Endangered Species Act has maintained its rightful place as our nation's most enduring wildlife conservation law.