Western lawmakers, including Governor Mark Gordon (R, Wyo.) and Sen. John Barasso (R, Wyo.) pushed for reform of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at a hearing on Wednesday, arguing states should have greater authority in recovering endangered species. Environmentalists, meanwhile, pushed back, saying that the changes threatened species with extinction.

“I believe the Endangered Species Act is broken,” Gordon said. “And there is no scientific reason it shouldn’t be fixed.”

Debate at the hearing centered around Barrasso’s recently introduced Endangered Species Act Amendments Act of 2020, a proposal that would amend the act to place greater emphasis on species restoration and give state and local stakeholders a greater role in restoration process.

“These changes to the Endangered Species Act are critical for Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and other states,” said Barrasso, who described how parts of the legislation had won the support of conservation groups.

“They include – reauthorizing the Endangered Species Act for the first time in almost 30 years; substantially increasing the funding authorization and focusing money on recovery of species; elevating the role of states in implementing the Act; ensuring non-governmental stakeholders have a clearer voice in recovery and in implementing planning; providing regulatory certainty to incentivize investment in conservation and recovery activities; and prioritizing resources for species most in need,” he said.

The lawmakers believe that reforming the ESA will allow states to make better use of their conservation resources, knowledge of the species history, and relationships with stakeholders.

“Cooperation and productive collaboration are key to ensuring species management and protections are cohesively applied across a landscape, no matter whether it is private, state, or federal land,” said Liesa Priddy, a rancher and former member of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who testified on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“States have more support than ever before from partner groups across these land management jurisdictions, and those collective resources should be leveraged for the best outcome of the species,” she continued. “This bill would allow states to leverage those partnerships in a much more immediate and lasting way, as conservation partnerships can and do persist long after a species is listed – or delisted – under the Act.”

But reformers and environmentalists are at loggerheads over a portion of the proposal that would bar a federal court from overturning a delisting for a period of five years after the formal delisting process. During this period, the secretary of the Interior would continue to monitor the recovery of the species.

“My legislation would delay the ability of a federal court to overturn a delisting rule during this five-year monitoring period. It does not eliminate anyone’s right to challenge a delisting rule in federal court. It only delays such a lawsuit so states have an opportunity to prove that they can successfully manage the recovered species,” said Barrasso, who admitted that the provision was a ‘non-starter’ for some stakeholder groups but stressed that these species would still be protected under other laws.

“Under my legislation a recovered species is still protected during that five-year post-delisting monitoring period,” he continued. “They are still protected by state regulations and a state management plan, and by the secretary’s authority to re-list the species if its condition deteriorates.”

States would have additional resources to invest in wildlife management if they did not have to defend their wildlife management plans in court, Gordon explained.

“The largest barrier to returning the management of fully recovered species to the states and tribes is litigation,” Gordon said. “These suits, and the associated investment of money, time and energy, detract from species recovery and conservation and divert important resources away from species that truly need help.”

Environmentalists groups fear that this during this time species would experience irrecoverable damage while citizens were barred from taking legal action.

“The barring of judicial review for a decision to delist is hugely troublesome because it completely eliminates the ability to hold the government accountable for the decisions that they make,” said Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark, who worried that species numbers would decline and lose habitat during the five year period when citizens “are powerless to stop it.”

“If there are politically motivated delistings, significant damage can occur,” she said.

In part this reflects different metrics. While proponents of ESA reform point out that species are almost never removed from the list, environmentalists see this as evidence that species are often not added until they are on the brink of extinction.