BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Republicans in Congress on Tuesday called for an overhaul to the Endangered Species Act to curtail environmentalists' lawsuits and give more power to states, but experts say broad changes to one of the nation's cornerstone environmental laws are unlikely given the pervasive partisan divide in Washington, D.C.
A group of 13 GOP lawmakers representing states across the U.S. released a report proposing "targeted reforms" for the 40-year-old federal law, which protects imperiled plants and animals.
Proponents credit the law with staving off extinction for hundreds of species — from the bald eagle and American alligator to the gray whale. But critics contend the law has been abused by environmental groups seeking to restrict development in the name of species protection.
Led by Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, the Republicans want to amend the law to limit litigation from wildlife advocates that has resulted in protections for some species. And they want to give states more authority over imperiled species that fall within their borders.
Also among the recommendations from the group are increased scientific transparency, more accurate economic impact studies and safeguards for private landowners.
"The biggest problem is that the Endangered Species Act is not recovering species," said Hastings. "The way the act was written, there is more of an effort to list (species as endangered or threatened) than to delist."
Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in December 1973, the act has resulted in additional protections for more than 1,500 plants, insects, mammals, birds, reptiles and other creatures, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Republicans have seized on the fact that only 2 percent of protected species have been declared recovered — despite billions of dollars in federal and state spending.
Noah Greenwald, a wildlife advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, disputed the 2 percent figure as a "gross manipulation of facts" that ignores the hundreds of protected species now on the path to recovery.
The political hurdles for an overhaul of the law are considerable. The Endangered Species Act enjoys fervent support among many environmentalists, whose Democratic allies on Capitol Hill have thwarted past proposals for change.