State officials told a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing this morning that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) should be reformed to give states a larger role in the decisionmaking process.

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 some states, which “play a central role in fulfilling the Endangered Species Act’s mission,” committee chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in his remarks today.

All three witnesses who spoke before the committee testified to how decisionmaking at the federal level throughout the ESA implementation process could benefit from state-level input and expertise.

Photo credit: Arizona Game and Fish Department

“First, increase opportunities for the state agencies to take a more formal and active role and fully participate in all aspects of ESA implementation as intended by Congress,” said Larry Voyles, the director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the former president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, in prepared remarks to the committee.

“State agencies have broad expertise, experience and often comprehensive data sets and analyses on listed species because before they were listed, the species were under statement management jurisdiction,” Voyles explained.

“[W]e believe that the word ‘consultation’ does not adequately characterize the desired state‐federal relationship in ESA implementation, and we prefer the word ‘cooperation’ which implies robustly working together to implement the ESA,” Voyles said.

Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission

Nick Wiley, the executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, also made the case for greater deference to state-level input and expertise on implementing the ESA.

“State agencies should be afforded the opportunity to participate in all implementation aspects of the ESA from listing decisions, to recovery plan development and conservation recovery efforts on the ground, to decisions regarding down-listing and delisting of recovered species,” Wiley wrote in his prepared testimony.

“[W]e are talking about more effectively leveraging the expertise and conservation delivery by the state agencies,” Wiley said.

Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, told the committee that even though the ESA is “one of our strongest and most important environmental laws,” it could be improved by strengthening the partnership between state and federal agencies.

“Federal decisions will be improved and our recovery efforts hastened by full participation and engagement of our state fish and wildlife agencies in ESA implementation,” Coit wrote in her prepared remarks. “Indeed, any successful effort to promote conservation would benefit from strengthening state engagement and opportunities to play a bigger role.”