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Resources Needed to Modernize Act

Americans rightly cherish the Endangered Species Act. They know that, without this landmark law, wolves, grizzly bears, manatees, the bald eagle and other invaluable species might now be extinct. The proposals I describe below are directed at Congress and also at the executive branch of our government. In short, I believe that what the federal government should do with the Endangered Species Act is fund it, preserve it, respect it and use the law’s existing provisions to address the mounting threats to wildlife posed by global warming.

The first step in modernizing the Endangered Species Act is to

ensure that the responsible agency has enough resources to implement the law fully. That means that Congress should, for the first time in many years, fund the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at a level that will enable it to carry out the Endangered Species Act effectively.

The service has lost 600 staff members in the past two years. As a result, the offices that implement the Endangered Species Act are missing approximately 30 percent of the staff they once contained. It is no wonder, then, that the service cannot de-list species as quickly as some would like. The solution to the backlog is not to weaken the act’s species protections, but rather to give the service the funds it needs to do its job.

Accordingly, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and I led 26 other Senators last month in asking the responsible Senate Appropriations subcommittee to give Endangered Species Act programs at the Fish and Wildlife Service $100 million more in fiscal 2008 than the president’s budget would provide. The funding increase we request would grant urgently needed assistance to imperiled species awaiting protection under the act. It also would speed efforts to reduce the extinction risks facing currently endangered and threatened species.

My second legislative proposal is that Congress enact the Endangered Species Recovery Act, a bipartisan, bicameral bill sponsored by Sen. Crapo and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). The bill would give landowners whose properties contain endangered or threatened species a tax credit for costs associated with habitat protection easements and other restoration efforts. Private lands are home to roughly 80 percent of the country’s threatened and endangered species. The partnerships facilitated by the new credit would help safeguard the nation’s living heritage.

Overall, when it comes to the Endangered Species Act, Congress must not mistake weakening for modernization. In the previous Congress, a narrowly passed House measure that would have hobbled the act went nowhere in the Senate. In this Congress, I hope my House colleagues will defeat moves against the integrity of the act and that we all work together to implement the law effectively.

I cannot write about the Endangered Species Act without making some requests of the executive branch. First, I ask that more federal agencies cooperate in restoring vulnerable species to healthy status. The Army Corps of Engineers continues to shrink the habitat of the Florida panther by issuing permits that fail to look at cumulative impacts. The Forest Service continues with its plan to poison prairie dogs within the Nebraska National Forest, even though their colonies provide a habitat for endangered black-footed ferrets. These agencies could learn something from the Department of Defense, which has had its run-ins with the Endangered Species Act over the years. Recently, the department has worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service to promote the recovery of red-cockaded woodpeckers at Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg and other installations. It also has worked to increase the least tern population at its Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado.

My second request of the executive branch is that the Fish and Wildlife Service use existing authority to address the impacts of global warming on the plants and animals that need protection. In February, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and I held a hearing on global warming and wildlife in our Environment and Public Works subcommittee. At the hearing, scientists and sportsmen described the negative impacts that global warming is having already on the species they know. The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service has identified a warming climate, and the resulting melting of sea ice, as the primary reason polar bears may now be threatened as a species.

I still believe that Congress should pass legislation that reduces U.S. greenhouse gas emissions substantially enough and quickly enough to forestall truly catastrophic global warming. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and I have reintroduced such a bill, the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, with a bipartisan list of co-sponsors. Among other things, our bill would invest money raised by the auction of set-aside emissions credits in mitigating the negative impacts of any unavoidable global warming on wildlife.

But even before Congress finally passes a law like the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service can and should include in its recovery plans measures for helping species survive in the face of the warming that is happening already.

Finally, I ask the Interior Department to halt all administrative efforts to undermine the Endangered Species Act. Last month, recent drafts of regulatory changes were published that would narrow the scope and reduce the strength of the act’s protections. In the same week that the draft regulations became public, the Interior Department’s inspector general found that the department’s current deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks had been quashing or altering scientists’ findings in ways designed to undermine the Fish and Wildlife Service’s species protection decisions. Her actions have subjected the service to new lawsuits and aided the service’s adversaries in ongoing ones. Together, these recently uncovered actions create the unfortunate impression that the Interior Department is trying to reduce the stringency and scope of the federal government’s wildlife protection laws.

When Congress adopted the Endangered Species Act more than 30 years ago, it made a commitment to future generations to protect and restore endangered species and their habitats. That commitment was necessary and noble, and it should be kept by our generation of leaders.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) is chairman of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on private sector and consumer solutions to global warming and wildlife protection.

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