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Tom Emmer, fellow Republicans go for the kill on endangered species

"Reform" of the Endangered Species Act is mostly meant to strip protections for thousands of threatened animals.

"Reform" of the Endangered Species Act is mostly meant to strip protections for thousands of threatened animals. AP

With elections closing in, Republicans in Congress have initiated an all-out assault on some old enemies – like the humpback whale.

In the last few weeks, they’ve introduced a pile of legislation, all designed to take the teeth out of the Endangered Species Act. The attacks include a cohort of bills that would make it easier to remove animals from “endangered” or “threatened” status and make it harder for environmental groups to sue for their protection.

A few riders tacked onto the National Defense Authorization Act – which sets the annual budget for the military -- would challenge protections for the sage grouse and gray wolves across the United States, making their habitats fair game for private owners and industries.

Another proposal would increase state and local input on whether or not species get protection, which essentially places the fate of animals in the hands of states that may or may not want them around.

Officially, it’s being called “reform,” a much-needed overhaul of an ineffective, out of touch law.

“Farmers and ranchers in Minnesota and across the country want to protect America’s wildlife, but the current [Endangered Species Act] has failed, hurt farmers and their families, and cost billions,” Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Delano) said in a press release. The release didn’t say much about how it was doing any of that, but did sound the alarm about gray wolves running rampant through the state.

Emmer is a co-sponsor of a bill that would let states have a say in which animals need protection and which should fend for themselves.

Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act has been a thorn in the side of ranchers, oil and gas companies, and builders, who would rather make money off the land than let caribou have it. Officials like Emmer argue that the act’s success rate for saving endangered animals is somewhere between 1 and 3 percent.

Wildlife activists are skeptical.

“Really, it’s all part of the Trump administration’s industry and polluter-promoting agenda,” says Endangered Species Coalition representative Derek Goldman. The act is one of the nation’s most effective bills for protecting wildlife, he says. The American alligator, the whooping crane, and even the venerated bald eagle have all been brought back from the brink of extinction.

If Congress is worried about its track record, he says, it should fully fund the act rather than disempower it. The Fish and Wildlife Service annually spends about $1.4 billion to protect endangered species. That’s not a lot when divided among the 1,500 species on the list, and the 350 or so waiting for consideration. The proposed 2019 budget would cut it almost in half.

“Most of the reason why these species are endangered is loss of habitat,” Goldman says. If it’s suddenly easier to industrialize protected land, he worries that species won’t be able to bounce back.

What this might mean for Minnesota and its threatened species -- the Canada lynx, the Northern long-eared bat, and the Karner blue butterfly -- is unclear. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been combing through the legislation, looking for answers.

“In general, there’s some positives to some of these,” says section manager Ann Pierce. Minnesota is in a good position to get more local control in its conservation efforts, and already has its own laws in place. However, “Some states don’t have any of that.”

What’s more, animals don’t see jurisdictional boundaries. A gray wolf doesn’t know it might be safer in Minnesota than Wisconsin.

With a Republican majority and an administration currently making confetti out of the nation’s environmental regulations, it’s not looking good for team gray wolf.