Ranch groups focus on ESA reform before lame duck window closes in Congress

Ethan Lane, left, executive director of the Public Lands Council, and Tim Williams, deputy director of the Interior Department, visit after their presentation on grazing issues during the Idaho Cattle Association annual meeting in Sun Valley on Nov. 12.

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Most of the issues the Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are dealing with during the lame duck session of Congress involve the Endangered Species Act, the council’s Ethan Lane told members of the Idaho Cattle Association.

Modernizing ESA is a top priority, said Lane, the executive director of PLC and NCBA federal lands. The groups have worked with a bipartisan initiative by the Western Governors’ Association for three years to develop recommendations for doing that. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., turned those recommendations into bipartisan legislation, he said.

The bill would change the way ESA is implemented so it’s more effective on the ground, he said.

PLC and NCBA are expecting the bill to be introduced this week, but passage during the lame duck session will be another matter, he said.

“We will be advocating for the bill to be included in any potential year-end lands package. If we miss the lame duck window, there will be no opportunity for this legislation in the next Congress,” he said.

That’s because leadership in the House Natural Resources Committee will shift when Democrats take control of the House. The incoming committee chairman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., is an anti-grazing activist, Lane said. Two other committee members — Reuben Gallego, D-Ariz., and Don Beyer, D-Va. — will likely remain on the committee and are actively opposed to ranchers, he said.

But the Trump administration is also working on changes to ESA. The Obama administration strengthened rulemaking on critical habitat designation, allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make those designations even where protected species don’t exist, he said.

“The Trump administration is trying to fix that problem,” he said.

It’s also looking to eliminate the blanket 4(d) rule, which allows FWS to extend all protections for endangered species to threatened species without any distinction.

It is also working on changing the consultation process for permits and approvals that could affect listed species or their habitat. Currently, FWS has to consult with every agency that has an interest.

“That can turn into a real nightmare … agencies can hold the process hostage,” he said.

The administration wants to streamline the process so there’s a lead agency, he said.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act, is looking at changing NEPA requirements.

“Our biggest focus is increased authority for agencies to use categorical exclusions,” he said.

NEPA shouldn’t be required for normal grazing permit renewals where there’s nothing new to evaluate, he said.

The Interior Department is also pulling back on 2015 amendments to land management plans, which require an overly restrictive grass height for nesting sage grouse. Science shows it’s not an appropriate metric, he said.

PLC and NCBA are also working on grazing regulatory reform and reducing overpopulation of wild horses and burros and is pushing back on the potential for grizzly bear reintroduction in Washington state, he said.

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