July 27, 2023

House Republicans vote to strip Endangered Species Act protections from two animals

A male lesser prairie chicken displays for females at a lekking site in southeast New Mexico. (Photo by Michael Smith)

U.S. House Republicans voted to strip protections from the lesser prairie chicken and the northern long-eared bats on Wednesday.

The House of Representatives voted 217-206 in favor of three items, including two joint resolutions stripping protections from the endangered and threatened species. Two Republicans crossed party lines and voted with the Democrats against the measures. 

The House voted on three items—removal of protections for the lesser prairie chicken and northern long-eared bat and funding for military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs—at the same time. All three of New Mexico’s representatives voted against them.

Of the two species, the lesser prairie chicken is found in New Mexico but the northern long-eared bat has a larger range, and is present in 37 states including some of New Mexico’s neighboring states.

The lesser prairie chicken has been divided into two distinct population segments. The southern segment, which includes the birds in eastern New Mexico, is listed as endangered while the northern segment, which includes birds in areas like Oklahoma and Kansas, is listed as threatened.

Republicans say the listings are government overreach

Because the debate and vote occurred simultaneously for all three measures, much of the discussion Wednesday focused on the military construction and VA appropriations bill. Democrats described the appropriations bill as being filled with “culture war” riders that, as Democratic Rep. Morgan McGarvey of Kentucky said, “get rid of diversity equity inclusion programs, restrict women’s access to abortion, reproductive health care, and make VA facilities less welcoming for all of those who served our country.”

But, in his arguments, Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pennsylvania, described the protections for the two species as “placing red tape on economic development and private land use and without warrant.”

His words reflect a larger sentiment expressed by Republicans that endangered species protections can hamper development and hurt economic interests. Republicans further describe the listings as government overreach. 

These sentiments were more prevalent during the robust debate on Tuesday during the House Rules Committee meeting.

“At every turn, the (Biden) administration seeks to expand the scope of environmental laws and to give in to environmental activists. The end result is to force private landowners to shoulder heavier burdens and to tie off development projects with more red tape, even in circumstances where there are successful voluntary conservation efforts being managed at the state and local level,” Chairman Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said during the Tuesday meeting.

‘An attack on the Endangered Species Act’

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona who is the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said that the efforts to overturn the protections “puts science, habitat, biodiversity in a second place and deals with anecdotal, industry demands and doesn’t deal with how ESA has functioned.”

He said 99 percent of the species listed have continued to exist thanks to the protections they received.

“The issue to reduce habitat, take habitat out of the equation and species survival are all efforts, I think, to undo the act itself even though we’re celebrating 50 years of success as we speak,” he said.

He said if the debate about removing protections from the species was entirely based on empirical evidence and science “it would be a good debate.” Instead, he said, the debate focuses on “what ifs and I heard and so and so, it happened to so and so, and the empirical part of the discussion is not there, that’s when it is a clear attack on the Endangered Species Act.”

What species deserve protection?

One of the statements a Republican made that received more attention on Tuesday came from Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina who said he wouldn’t care if white-nose syndrome wiped out the entire population of northern long-eared bats and indicated that he did not believe the bats should be protected from extinction.

“I see the bald eagle. That makes sense. I see the bears. That makes sense. But, long-eared bats? I hope the white-nose syndrome wipes all of them out. We won’t have it to worry about,” he said.

White-nose syndrome is a fungus that has devastating impacts to bats and is the leading threat that the northern long-eared bat faces. The bat was listed as threatened in 2015, but the devastating impacts white-nose syndrome has had on the species led to it being reclassified as endangered earlier this year.

White-nose syndrome is impacting many species of bats and has recently been discovered in New Mexico.

The decline in bat populations could have major consequences for agriculture and other industries. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colorado, pointed to the economic benefits that bats bring.

“I’m glad to hear that (Norman) believes that the bald eagle should be protected and bears as well. Apparently he has very spirited views on which animals should be protected and which should not,” Neguse said. 

He pointed to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report released last year that said, in respect to the bats, that “they eat enough pests to save more than $1 billion per year in crop damage and decline as well as pesticides costs.”

“I think the American people can rest assured that my friend from South Carolina isn’t in charge of making the decision as to what animals are endangered or not,” Neguse said. “That is a judgment reserved by virtue of the Endangered Species Act to the experts who look at these matters in an objective, independent way, free of any political interference, soliciting, of course, input through the rulemaking process from industry, from a wide range of stakeholders, and then rendering a judgment.”

In terms of the bat, one of the main opponents is the timber industry. The endangered species listing means some changes in timber harvesting, such as leaving snag trees and trees with cavities in them standing for the bats to roost and moving timber harvesting activities to times of year when the bats are hibernating in areas where the species is known to occur. During the winter, the bats hibernate in caves, which is where they are exposed to the fungus that leads to white-nose syndrome.

Rep. Mary Gay Scalon, D-Pennsylvania, said the populations of northern long-eared bats have declined by almost 90 percent due to white-nose syndrome.

“They are a vital part of our environment,” she said. “I find myself a little conflicted about this because I can deal with snakes and I can deal with rodents, I cannot deal with bats, personally. That’s just a visceral thing. But I do have to argue for them here.”

She highlighted that protections for endangered and threatened species are years in the making and often include litigation.

In terms of the lesser prairie chicken, New Mexico opponents of the listing include energy companies. Oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin and even renewable energy efforts such as wind farms can impact the bird and lead to increased habitat fragmentation.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez’s congressional district in New Mexico includes the lesser prairie chicken habitat. The Democrat congresswoman said both species do play a role and she objected to Norman’s statement about wiping out the northern long-eared bat population.

“We know that so many of the beautiful creatures that God has created and that walk and crawl and fly among us play an important role in our ecosystem,” she said.

Next steps 

The Senate has already passed the joint resolution on a party-line 50-48 vote to remove the endangered and threatened species protections for the lesser prairie chickens. Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire did not vote on the measure. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia crossed party lines to vote with Republicans in favor of the measure.

That means it now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk. Grijalva said Biden has already signaled that he will veto the joint resolutions.

“This is a pointless political exercise and stunt,” he said.