Controversy surrounds endangered species bills

A bill before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and a companion piece in the Senate would change the state’s endangered species act, leaving the final decision of whether or not an animal or plant is endangered or threatened to a review board instead of state biologists and conservation specialists.

Scott Weidensaul, a representative of the Pennsylvania Audubon Society said, “I trust by now everyone on this list is aware of the significant attack being launched on rare species in Pennsylvania. The deceptively named ‘Endangered Species Coordination Act’ would gut the ability of out state resource agencies to list and protect rare plants and animals; essentially only those listed by the federal government would be covered.”

“A hearing held in Schuylkill County on Monday showed clearly how poorly the bill’s own sponsors understand the issues, since virtually all of the examples they raised of allegedly onerous regulations involved federally listed species like Indiana bats, not those like great egrets, American bitterns and upland sandpipers that are listed only by the state, and and which already receive a fairly limited degree of protection because of this,” Weidensaul added.

A current exemption in the Right to Know would be removed, requiring departments to provide information not already known to the public, including locations of designated species to whomever requests it.

It also provides for a maximum $5,000 fine for anyone who shares threatened/endangered information without written permission from the agency that provided that information, and specifically limits the uses of that information.

Bill co-sponsor Kathy Rapp supports the bill because it would provide previously protected information to developers and builders. “It will let people know up-front what is there before a lot of money is invested,” she said, referring to endangered or threatened habitat.

House Bill 1576, the Endangered Species Coordination Act spells out, in part, “The Commonwealth agency,” which would normally be the Fish and Boat or Game Commission, “shall provide detailed reasons and a summary of the acceptable data and methodology… to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) and to the standing committees of the Senate and House of Representatives over the Commonwealth agency for the purpose of this act.”

This applies not only to endangered and threatened species, but the designation of “Wild Trout Streams” as well.

Rapp said the bill would “provide consistency, transparency and accountability” and that other state agencies such as PennDot, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources are already subject to review.

“They do not attempt in anyway to re-create science. They make sure that the departments follow procedure and have fulfilled requirements,” she added. “The Regulatory Review Commission members are not scientists. They will be asking, ‘did you follow the proper planning process’?”

In a September 9 article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, John Organ, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Division of Wildlife and Fish Restoration is quoted as saying, “This could be a violation of federal regulations, and result in loss of eligibility to participate in the grant programs.” More than $27 million a year in federal funds go to the state’s fish and game commissions.

In the same article, John Arway, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s executive director commented, “It’s certainly got my attention knowing that a quarter of my budget is at risk. We believe the bills’ would stop our ability to list species, and that goes to the very heart of our mission as an independent commission of state government.”

Rapp said that if any of the bill’s contents violated federal law or is found to be unconstitutional, then the committee would amend the language as necessary.

The bill requires the removal of any species currently designated as endangered or threatened after two years unless an agency re-designates the species in accordance with the provisions of the bill.

The federal lists would not be affected, however there are a number of species that are not listed nationally, but are rare in their Pennsylvania ranges.

Kirk Johnson, executive director for the Friends of Allegheny Wilderness, noted that the Allegheny National Forest would not be directly impacted by the bill as the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handle endangered regulations on a federal level.

He said, “This does not in any way imply that House Bill 1576 is benign, it just means that it is less significant in terms of implications for the stewardship of the Allegheny National Forest than it is for other parts of the Commonwealth.”

“Though Friends of Allegheny Wilderness concerns itself exclusively with the federal stewardship of the Allegheny National Forest, we would not be disappointed to see State Representative Kathy Rapp, State Senator Joseph Scarnati, and State Senator Scott Hutchinson immediately rescind their sponsorship for this questionable legislation.”

Johnson noted that the Senate version of the bill that is being sponsored by Hutchinson and is Senate Bill 1047. Scarnati is actually the primary sponsor, as he was the one who introduced the bill.

The Senate and House bills are nearly word-for-word copies of each other.

A joint letter from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association praised the bill, and State Representative Jeff Pyler, who introduced the bill.

“We commend Representative Pyler for his Endangered Species Coordination Act legislation as it would introduce consistency, transparency and accountability to threatened and endangered species conservation and management while also allowing sustainable economic development across the Commonwealth,” the letter states.

The letter also reads, “HB 1576 would standardize the listing and management of threatened and endangered species by establishing a rule making process, consolidating the information into a centralized database managed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, granting access to the information to persons required to consider the impacts that a project could have or to those involved in conservation efforts and protecting sensitive data by prohibiting the disclosure of the information to anyone not involved in a development or conservation project.”

Ryan Talbott, executive director of the Allegheny Defense Project said, “The so-called ‘Endangered Species Coordination Act’ is not intended to protect threatened and endangered species. Rather, the bill is intended to undermine protections for species that are threatened by logging, mining, and oil and gas development.”

“Anglers should be particularly concerned since the proposed legislation would make it more difficult to designate and protect streams with populations of wild trout.”

He continued, “This is a coordinated effort by the gas industry to secure legislation that benefits their industry at the expense of protecting threatened and endangered species and their habitat. The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Jeff Pyle, has received over $48,000 in direct contributions from the gas industry while the Senate sponsor, Sen. Joe Scarnati, has received over $359,000 from the gas industry.”