The bipartisan Western Governors Association (WGA) is working on a series of recommended changes to the 1970s-era Endangered Species Act (ESA) and more than four decades of species listings made under the statute since it was signed into law. WGA’s involvement adds momentum to the ESA reform debate on Capitol Hill, though environmental activists have vowed to derail the effort.

The WGA started working on the recommendations last year and plans to release a list of proposed “fixes” this summer, E&E News reported. “”Whether that is a set of recommendations that is taken to the Fish and Wildlife Service for regulatory changes, whether it includes recommended statutory changes, policy changes — all of that is to be determined,” WGA policy adviser David Willms told E&E News in an interview from Cheyenne, Wyo. “But that’s what we’re moving towards, is seeing if there are places where there is consensus.”

Western leaders in Congress have been laying the groundwork for ESA reform legislation this year. In February, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee invited former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) to provide a detailed critique of the way the ESA functions today, compared to when it first became law. “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 (D) told the committee.

The ESA, passed in 1973, has “matured” into a “full blown, unfunded federal mandate,” Freudenthal said. “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,” Freudenthal told the Senate committee.

In March, the American Public Works Association (APWA) told the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee that state and local governments have been hamstrung by ESA regulations when trying to upgrade highways, water treatment facilities and other kinds of public infrastructure. In some cases, “critically needed infrastructure projects are stalled or prohibited entirely because of bureaucratically imposed processes that fail to achieve goals mandated” by the ESA, APWA President Ron Calkins said.

Ron Calkins (photo credit: U.S. House Natural Resources Committee)

“We support federal protections of endangered species which balance the needs of the species with the need for public works professionals to build and maintain public safety infrastructure,” Calkins said. “At issue is the need to reform the Endangered Species Act to build stronger partnerships, to reduce delay and uncertainty for states, local governments, private industry, and individuals; and to provide greater administrative flexibility,” he said.

According to the staff of the House resources committee, Republicans in Congress are interested in modernizing the ESA, which has not been reauthorized since 1988. While the law was intended to “preserve and recover domestic species from the brink of extinction,” it has now become “a tool for litigation” from environmental activist groups “that drains resources away from real recovery efforts on the state, tribal and local level and blocks job-creating economic activities,” according to the committee.

Congressional staff are quietly preparing behind the scenes for “what could be an epic battle over the Endangered Species Act,” according to E&E News, and environmental activist groups will lobby hard against any amendments to the ESA.

“I don’t see a reform effort strengthening the law,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. But at the same time, Rappaport Clark is working to shape the WGA’s recommendations on the ESA, by participating in a series of stakeholder meetings organized by the governors’ coalition, according to E&E News.

“I can only see a reform effort that will undermine and weaken the law’s ability to achieve its purposes,” Rappaport Clark said.