Monday, November 25, 2013

Endangered Species Protection is Threatened by the General Assembly

By Thomas Au, Sierra Club PA Conservation Chair

The gas drilling and mining industries have been pushing new legislation to undermine the independence of the PA Fish and Boat Commission and the PA Game Commission to administer Pennsylvania's endangered species laws. 

The so-called Endangered Species Coordination Act (House Bill 1576 and Senate Bill 1047) would place regulations for rare species by the Fish and Boat Commission and Game Commission under the purview of the state's Independent Regulatory Review Commission - a five member body dominated by the legislature.  While this process appears to be innocuous on the surface, it essentially subjects proposed actions by these independent agencies to second-guessing by political appointees.

The current process allows scientists from the PA Game Commission, PA Fish and Boat Commission and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, after public hearing and discussion, to determine when a species in Pennsylvania is rare, threatened or endangered and take steps to protect them. The current process also allows the Pa Fish and Boat Commission to designate wild trout streams. The bills would take this independent authority away from these agencies and their professional staff, and put the ultimate decisions in the hands of political appointees. 

The bills would actually prevent a species from being listed in Pennsylvania, unless it is first listed by the federal government.  This ignores the fact that many species may be threatened in Pennsylvania due to conditions in our state that do not exist in other states.  These include the great egret, the long-eared owl, and numerous species of mussels and fish. And according to testimony from the staff of the Commissions, it would make it more difficult to protect many rare Pennsylvania wildlife and fish species.

The bills would also require the agencies to re-propose all the species currently under their protection by enacting regulations on each one of them.  This would require a huge amount of agency resources to be used to re-justify listed endangered species, without providing funding pay for the agency work.  This mandate that will divert scarce resources from other agency critical work. 
The cumulative effect of the changes proposed in the bill blunt the Commissions' programs for threatened and endangered species of fish and wildlife - allowing drilling, mining, and clear-cutting to evade agency review. 

In 2012, the Governor’s Energy Executive, Patrick Henderson, wrote in a report to the General Assembly that the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory environmental review tool should continue to be enhanced so as to assist in the up-front avoidance of conflicts with threatened and endangered species, flora, fauna, habitat and other sensitive natural resources and increase certainty in decision making and long-term planning of pipeline operators.  If this is the Governor's position, his office should be leading the opposition to these bills.

With ever-larger tracts of pristine public and private land being subjected to industrial development, including gas drilling, pipeline construction, and mining,  the likelihood of encroachment on  threatened and endangered species increases.  These industries should not attempt to shield themselves from potential conflict by curbing the ability of the fish and game commissions to list and protect these species. Pennsylvanians cherish their wild resources, and we should not be weakening their protection.

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