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The Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the 111th Congress: Conflicting Values and Difficult Choices

The Endangered Species Act (ESA; P.L. 93-205, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1543) has been one of the more contentious environmental laws. This may stem from its strict substantive provisions, which can affect the use of both federal and nonfederal lands and resources. Under ESA, species of plants and animals (both vertebrate and invertebrate) can be listed as endangered or threatened according to assessments of their risk of extinction. Once a species is listed, powerful legal tools are available to aid its recovery and protect its habitat. ESA may also be controversial because dwindling species are usually harbingers of broader ecosystem decline. The most common cause of species listing is habitat loss. ESA is considered a primary driver of large-scale ecosystem restoration issues.

The 111th Congress has considered whether to revoke ESA regulations promulgated in the waning days of the Bush Administration that would alter when federal agency consultation is required. In addition, legislation related to global climate change includes provisions that would allocate funds to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species program and/or to related funds to assist species adaptation to climate change. Other major issues concerning ESA in recent years have included the role of science in decision-making, critical habitat (CH) designation, protection by and incentives for property owners, and appropriate protection of listed species, among others.

The authorization for spending under ESA expired on October 1, 1992. The prohibitions and requirements of ESA remain in force, even in the absence of an authorization, and funds have been appropriated to implement the administrative provisions of ESA in each subsequent fiscal year. Proposals to reauthorize and extensively amend ESA were last considered in the 109th Congress, but none was enacted. No legislative proposals were introduced in the 110th Congress to reauthorize the ESA.

In the first session of the 111th Congress, P.L. 111-8 contained language authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw or reissue (1) revisions to the ESA Section 7 consultation regulations promulgated by the Bush Administration and (2) a December 2008 special rule that outlined protections afforded polar bears. In addition, P.L. 111-11 included provisions (1) authorizing the implementation of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement, providing for the reintroduction of Chinook salmon, and (2) amending P.L. 106-392 to extend the authorizations for the Upper Colorado and San Juan River Basin endangered fish recovery programs through FY2023. P.L. 111-88 appropriated about $281 million for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species and related programs for FY2010.

This report discusses oversight issues and legislation introduced in the 111th Congress to address ESA implementation and management of endangered and threatened species.

Download the complete report.

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