Texas Declares War on Endangered Species Act

Texas is no stranger to beefs with the federal government. Look no further than its perennial pissing match with the EPA. Last week, Texas officials declared victory in another front of their skirmish with the feds, this one involving an obscure reptile, the dunes sagebrush lizard, found only in four western Texas counties and southeastern New Mexico.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering classifying the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species for years. According to its Wikipedia page, the lizard has been losing habitat as the networks of shinnery oak it prefers have been cleared to make way for cattle, but that's not what the current debate's about. No, the current debate centers on the lizard's chutzpah to inhabit an area coveted by the oil and gas industry. So when USFWS began considering protecting the lizard under the Endangered Species Act, Texas officials did what Texas officials do: They bitched about federal overreach.

"A small, sandy-colored lizard you've probably never seen before could cost the schoolchildren of Texas hundreds of millions of dollars if the Federal government pushes forward with its plan to list it as endangered," reads the website of Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. Senator John Cornyn said the feds' proposal was "ill-conceived," based on "incomplete science," and would have had "dire consequences ... for Texans and our nation's energy production."

So when USFWS recently announced that it had struck a conservation agreement with ranchers and the oil industry and would forgo the endangered species listing, it was touted as another victory in the righteous battle against federal overreach. Not content to simply celebrate reaching an amicable resolution on a contentious subject, Republicans, Texans at the forefront, have seized upon the opportunity to go after the Endangered Species Act itself.

On Thursday, Washington Republican Doc Hasting convened the House Committee on Natural Resources for a hearing about the Endangered Species Act with the even-handed title "Taxpayer-Funded Litigation: Benefitting Lawyers and Harming Species, Jobs, and Schools." The thrust of the hearing was, as you might expect from the title, how greedy environmentalist lawyers are cashing in off the federal government by filing frivolous lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act.

Said Hastings:

While a few environmental lawyers rake in the federal cash at hundreds of dollars per hour, the needs of truly endangered species suffer. More seriously, American jobs are lost and people are hurt. ... Litigation that blocks economic activity and public needs, such as building schools, not only impedes recovery, it diminishes trust of taxpayers who are subsidizing that litigation.

Of course, Texas Republicans couldn't miss out an opportunity to bash the Endangered Species Act, so Patterson, along with Comptroller Susan Combs, traveled to Washington to share their expertise with the committee.

The Endangered Species Act was great and all when it was passed in the 1970s, but it has since been hijacked by radical environmental groups who inundate the federal governments with frivolous lawsuits to protect species for which there is no scientific evidence they are endangered, Patterson said. Combs wasn't on the list of official witnesses, but she touted her appearance before the committee in a press release. "We continue to reiterate that sound peer-reviewed science must be used in all listing decisions," she said. The takeaway was, the ESA needs to be amended to be less burdensome and more scientific.

If you're wondering what standing Texas' top tax collector has to thrust herself in the middle of what is ultimately a scientific discussion, so was John Snape, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which would fall under Patterson's rubric of "radical environmental group."

He scoffed at the claim that ESA listings, including the dune sagebrush lizard, aren't driven by science.

"Every single independent scientist who has looked at the status of the lizard all agree that it is imperiled and is headed in the wrong direction," he said. "The only people who disagree with that are people who don't have a scientific degree or are paid by the oil and gas industry."

He does not say to which category he would assign Combs and Patterson but notes that their stance against the ESA isn't unexpected. "I think the Texas brand of hostility to endangered species is unique," he said. There have been other battles over endangered species listings in the past, as with wolves and the northern spotted owl, but nowhere has sustained such a strong disdain for the act as Texas.

That said, Snape thinks opponents have little chance of fundamentally altering the ESA -- a bill to do so failed in the Republican-dominated House last year -- so Tuesday's public hearing was pure theater, a way to score political points. Snape acknowledged that there is room for dialogue about the importance of economic development versus conservation, but Texas officials don't seemed to be inclined to engage in a nuanced philosophical debate.

"They like to rant and rave about it, but the reality is, the law's the law," Snape said.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson