Endangered species bill contentious

The top officials of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Fish and Boat Commission joined with state Rep. Greg Vitali, Democratic chairman of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, to discuss their opposition to House Bill 1576, the Endangered Species Coordination Act, during a recent news conference.

Speakers included Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director John Arway, Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Carl Roe, PennFuture Chief Counsel George Jugovic and PennFuture Policy Director Steve Stroman, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter Senior Director Jeff Schmidt and Trout Unlimited Eastern Water Project Director Katy Dunlap.

“The professionals at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat and Game commissions currently decide wildlife that are designated threatened or endangered, and that system works fine,” said Vitali. “House Bill 1576 would give final decision making to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, adding unnecessary delays to the designation process and putting endangered species at risk.”

IRRC is made up of five members, two each appointed by the legislative caucuses and one by the governor. The bill also would require that any species currently listed as threatened or endangered go through the IRRC process and the legislature within two years of the legislation being enacted to justify its continued designation. That would also apply to wild trout stream designations.

Dunlap said Pennsylvania has a long history of sport fishing, and millions of people purchase fishing licenses and equipment every year, boosting the state’s economy. “This bill would jeopardize angling traditions and angling revenue in our state,” she said.

Commonwealth agencies, which would normally be the Fish and Boat or Game Commission, “shall provide detailed reasons and a summary of the acceptable data and methodology,” according to the bill.

Josh First, a conservative Republican and member of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said the bill is misguided because it would put profits ahead of protections.

A new amendment to the bill was introduced by Rep. Martin Causer, R-McKean and Potter, providing a definition of what comprises adequate data. The bill has been scheduled for a vote Wednesday by the House Game and Fisheries Committee. If it is reported out of committee, it could be voted by the full House of Representatives.

Arway said, “The bill incorporates politics and economics into what should be a scientific decision” during an interview with the Times Observer last Thursday after the conference.

During the conference Thursday Arway said, “House Bill 1576 remains critically flawed even with the proposed amendments that were distributed yesterday. If it would become law in its current form, it would be a huge step backwards in Pennsylvania’s proud conservation history.”

“The adequacy of state programs is part of the calculus for federal listings. A state with greater conservation measures is looked upon more favorably by federal decision-makers, since it gives them a higher level of confidence that the species will not become threatened or endangered locally and contribute to the need for a federal listing. Therefore, a weakening of Pennsylvania’s threatened and endangered species program would only increase the chance of the very federal intervention that contributed to the introduction of this bill in the first place,” he continued.

“With regard to wild trout streams, we continue to remind everyone that the permitting decisions that include stream designations are already subject to IRRC. Like threatened and endangered listings, the decisions about whether streams contain wild trout are currently being made based on sound science with the highest degree of attention paid to detailed data collection and analysis, and completed using an open and transparent, public process. To subject either process to IRRC would be duplicative and unnecessary.”

Earlier in the year, 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.”

Arway continued, “As I told the committees in September, we are not the obstacle to development that some have claimed us to be. It takes our staff an average of 30 days to complete Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory (PNDI) reviews in general, with Marcellus reviews averaging less than 20 days and PennDOT reviews averaging less than 15 days. In addition, it is significant to note that of the 16,600 PNDI searches in 2012, only 124, or less than 1 percent, resulted in surveys being requested by our agency. We take our responsibility of advising business, individuals, and other agencies seriously, and we know that the best way to do our jobs is by being as cooperative and timely as possible. “Indeed, our commitment to work with industry is not new. As part of the Natural Heritage Partnership, our staff have been carefully working to develop mapping areas that show the habitat needs of rare species with the ultimate goal of getting the information into the hands of developers early in their decision-making process so they can plan their projects better – saving everyone time and money while protecting the species we are entrusted to conserve.”

“We are committed to this collaborative approach and believe that it is preferable to dismantling 40 years of science-based decision-making which House Bill 1576 would do,” he added.

During the interview, Arway noted that one of the concerns about passage of the bill are the large number of co-sponsors including state Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, and bipartisan support.

State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Lycoming, said the legislation flies in the face of the legislature’s constitutional requirement to protect the environment.

“We have an obligation to protect the environment,” Mirabito said. “It’s not a choice; it’s an obligation. It’s a civil right for the people of Pennsylvania.”

In addition to weakening protection for endangered wildlife, shifting decision-making to IRRC puts millions of dollars at risk. The federal Department of the Interior in August wrote to the state and warned that if it diverts revenue from fishing and hunting, it would risk losing its share of federal restoration funds. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, Pennsylvania received $19.1 million in restoration funds.

The House Game and Fisheries Committee adopted an amendment that removed and requirement to re-designate all currently listed species, expands a proposed database to include other species that are of special concern or rare species that are not on the threatened or endangered list, insures information on the database is made available only to authorized persons, prohibits the transfer of licensing dollars or federal funds to further ensure there is no loss of federal funding, places requirement for permit applicant to do field surveys and insuring that independent regulatory review does not apply to hunting or fishing bag or creel limits, or seasons.

The bill passed the committee by a vote of 16-8, and was laid on the table.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Representative Jeff Pyle of Armstrong County, said after the committee hearing on Wednesday that conservationists shouldn’t get carte blanche if the result is stifled industry.

“This is what the industries want,” said Laura Jackson, a conservationist from Bedford County. “They want the authority removed from the Fish and Boat Commission and the Game Commission and they want it now to be under political control.” Jackson attended the committee meeting with about 15 other activists opposed to the legislation.

Arway urged people to speak with their local representatives and express their feelings about the bill.