If Republicans Gut Endangered Species Act, Arizona Could Lose Big Time

The bald eagle, one of the many species that benefited from the Endangered Species Act.
George Gentry/USFWS
The bald eagle, one of the many species that benefited from the Endangered Species Act.

Former President Barack Obama once lectured Republicans not long after taking office in 2009, "Elections have consequences." Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House, the consequences for the environment could be devastating.

Specifically, GOPers are eyeing the Endangered Species Act of 1973 for extinction.

Republicans have targeted the act for years with little success. But according to a recent report by the Washington Post, Republicans see Donald Trump's ascendancy as an opportunity to gut the law for good.

The article quotes House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) as crowing that he would "love to invalidate" the law. He said it has been "hijacked" and "has never been used for the rehabilitation of species," but rather, he contended, "for control of the land."

Such talk is making environmentalists in Arizona and elsewhere nervous.

They fear the gains made in the 43 years since President Richard Nixon signed the ESA into law could be reversed, leaving at risk the more than 2,300 species of plants and animals that now enjoy the ESA's protection.

Watch a slideshow of endangered and threatened species in Arizona that could be on the GOP chopping block.

The act has had some major successes since its inception. For example, both the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon — found in Arizona and other states — were once considered to be on the edge of extinction, but have since been "delisted" from the endangered category.

At this time, there are 72 mammals, plants, birds, and fish in Arizona that are listed either as "endangered," the category most at risk for extinction, or "threatened," meaning the species is likely to become endangered. That's according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of two government agencies tasked with enforcing the ESA,

The black-footed ferret, yet another example of an ESA success story.
Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

Many Arizonans have heard of federal and state efforts to save the Mexican gray wolf and protect the California condor.  Fewer know that the ESA also shields everything from rare desert cacti and wildflowers to the elusive masked bobwhite quail, the New Mexico jumping mouse, and the Sonoran tiger salamander.

The law makes it a crime to kill or harvest these plants and animals, unless allowed by a federal permit. The ESA also provides for a recovery plan, which includes the designation of critical habitats for species listed as endangered, a process that prevents federal agencies from destroying or adversely affecting them and offers incentives for private landowners to cooperate.

Such a plan may involve the reintroduction of certain species to the wild.

According to Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, reintroduction  has increased the Mexican gray wolf population from just seven wolves captured in the wild to nearly 100 living an area that spans Arizona and New Mexico. He regards the program as a success, despite many who are skeptical of the reintroduction of the predators.

"I'm aware of nothing in Arizona state law to stop people from shooting wolves out of sheer spite," Robinson noted. "The Endangered Species Act is responsible for the fact that today there are approximately 100 Mexican wolves in the wild in the United States."

Less controversial programs have involved federal and state efforts to bring the the black-footed ferret back from oblivion, after the species was believed extinct.

In Arizona, the ESA also protects the Sonoran pronghorn antelope, the fastest mammal in North America, which can reach speeds of up to 60 mph, and was bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild under the auspices of the ESA. Similarly, the rare Grant Mountain red squirrel, only found in Arizona's Pinaleño Mountains, enjoys the ESA's shield.

The Kanab ambersnail, named for its amber-like shell, is endemic to the Grand Canyon National Park, and also receives federal protection as an endangered species. So does the beautiful Sonoran tiger salamander, found only in Santa Cruz County's San Rafael Valley. Ditto the masked bobwhite quail, which is practically extinct in the wild, existing only on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Reserve in southern Arizona.

Peregrine falcons were once listed as endangered, but no more.
Kevin Cole via Wikimedia,org

Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arizona, pointed out that Arizona benefits economically from the ESA.

The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Reserve was acquired to conserve the masked bobwhite and is now a vacation destination, drawing 32,000 visitors a year who spend more than $1 million in the local economy, according to one study.

Tourists extend their stays at the Grand Canyon, traveling to the North Rim, to get a glimpse of the California condor,  Humphrey said. And Arizona's state fish, the Apache trout, was listed as endangered in 1973, but conservation efforts have replenished the population.  The fish was downlisted to threatened status in 2002, making way for sportsmen to cast lines for it.

Once endangered, Arizona's state fish, the Apache trout, is now so plentiful that anglers come from out of state just to fish for it.
Craig Springer/USFWS

"Arizona is the only place on the planet where people can catch those," Humphrey said of the Apache trout. "And anglers come in from all over the nation and the world [to fish for it]; like birders who come in to check off their bird list, there are anglers who do the same thing that want to catch one of every type of trout."

Robinson said he believes a repeal of the Act would be highly unlikely, given the backlash that would ensue. But there are a number of actions that Republicans in Congress could take to undermine the law.

"One scenario is that we retain something called the Endangered Species Act, but it’s stripped of all or most of its teeth," he said.

For instance, Republicans could strip ESA's power to protect the habitats of endangered species,  Robinson said.

"It goes without saying that an animal or a plant cannot survive if it doesn’t have a home," he added.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, agreed that the loss of habitat protection could be one way GOPers eviscerate the law.

"The number one reason that species are endangered is loss of habitat," Bahr explained. "Without it we will lose some of the animals and plants and other species that are just hanging on."

Eliminating habitat protection would "knock a big hole" in the act, Bahr said. She listed a number of other ways Republicans might rein in the ESA:

• Mandating the delisting of certain species as endangered;

• Limiting the enforcement of the act;

• Taking out the requirement to base listing decisions on science; and

• Revoking provisions allowing citizens to sue or petition the government if it's perceived as dragging its feet on a conservation effort.

"Just the fact that some interests want to gut the act shows you that it’s effective," she noted. "They don’t want to gut laws that are weak and ineffective."

Robinson lamented the hyper-partisanship over the act, pointing out that it was Nixon who challenged Congress to draft the ESA, which was passed overwhelmingly in 1973 with support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Indeed, Nixon's special message to Congress in 1972 on his environmental program reads like it could have been written by a tree-hugging Democrat millennial today. In it, Nixon speaks of an "environmental awakening" and a "revolution in values" when it came to mankind's commitment to conservation.

"It seems a little quaint to think of Richard Nixon as the primary mover behind the endangered species act," Robinson observed. "But protection of wildlife used to be a bipartisan issue."

He now sees the battle as far more dire, and the stakes very high.

"Do we want to live in a world where every acre of land has our thumbprint on it, to the extent that we don’t share the world with anything except squirrels and deer and a few other common species?" he asked. "There are legitimate reasons that we don’t want to live in a wasteland. These are human values at stake."