More than 40 years after becoming law, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has become almost unworkable for state and local officials in the West and needs to be reformed, former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal (D) told a U.S. Senate hearing today.

Signed into law in 1973, the ESA was intended to protect, and allow the recovery of, animal and plant populations that are at risk of extinction because of changes in habitats. The implementation of the law, however, has proved challenging for many of the Western states where the species are found.

“Over time, the mix of regulations, court decisions, policy guidance and individual agency actions by Presidential administrations of different but still well intentioned views have created a nearly unworkable system,” Freudenthal said in written testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee. Freudenthal served two terms as Wyoming’s governor, from 2003 to 2011, and was the U.S. attorney for Wyoming under President Bill Clinton (D).

Recommending higher, science-driven thresholds for ESA listings, he pressed for reforms to the current ESA program because “the logical results of the exercise of such federal power impacts the personal and property rights of so many other people.”

During Freudenthal’s tenure as governor, protecting the sage grouse in particular was a priority for Wyoming, where 40 percent of the bird’s population resides. For over a decade, while the federal government reviewed petitions to list the species under the ESA, Wyoming and other states moved ahead with region-specific plans to protect the bird.

Wyoming’s plan, Freudenthal explained, successfully protected most of the sage grouse population and nearly 15 million acres of habitat. For that reason, federal agencies borrowed from Wyoming’s efforts when it developed additional regulatory protections for the bird.

But when “discussions moved from the States and the federal field offices to Washington, DC,” the former governor said, the sage grouse management strategy “morphed into an effort to save every bird, every blade of grass and generally preserve the ‘Sagebrush Ecosystem,’’’ a requirement “which is not in the ESA.”

In the hands of federal agencies, the ESA “matured” into a “full blown, unfunded federal mandate,” Freudenthal wrote. “Our federal government simply ‘helicopters in’ with ESA requirements,” he said, but states end up bearing the burden of compliance.

“States are compelled to respond to listing petitions, species management directives, creation of adequate state regulatory mechanism, information requests, data and analysis disputes and meeting, after meeting, after meeting, etc.,” he explained. “State recreation agencies and game and fish departments are stretched to the breaking point by the costs of managing fish, wildlife and recreation resources.”

At the hearing, Senate EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) credited Western states for “collaborating tirelessly with stakeholders” to protect the species in their regions, but he underscored that the ESA is “not working today.”

“States, counties, wildlife managers, home builders, construction companies, farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders are all making it clear that the Endangered Species Act is not working today,” Barrasso said.

Today’s hearing comes after U.S. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) introduced new legislation to allow states, rather than federal agencies, to implement their own conservation and management plans for protecting greater sage-grouse populations and their habitat.

“If the federal government shares our concerns and goals,” said Sen. Risch in a statement, “it will allow the states to implement their own plans to protect the sage-grouse while at the same time meeting their individual community’s needs.”

The Greater Sage-Grouse Protection and Recovery Act of 2017, introduced on Feb. 1, was co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.).