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Endangered Species Act (10-4-05)

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The implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has long been a heated issue for environmentalists, industry and Congress. Partisan differences have prevented Congress from updating the act since it was due for reauthorization in 1992. Over the past year, however, Republican gains in both Houses have given new opportunities for overhauling the act. ESA's impacts the geosciences through restricting land use and requiring environmental mitigation for industrial development. Many energy projects in the Western United States have been delayed or stopped because of concerns involving endangered species. Geoscientists are also involved as scientific experts in fields that intersect with endangered species studies, such as the effect of increased sedimentation and changes to stream morphology on salmon in the Pacific Northwest.  Some groups have questioned the effectiveness of ESA in light of the relatively small number of species that have been taken off the list since its enactment in 1973. Meanwhile, supporters argue that the act is successful since even fewer listed species have gone extinct. The recent focus of the House Resource Committee has been on the designation of "critical habitat" for endangered species and providing reimbursement for landowners affected by ESA..

Recent Action

On September 30, 2005, the House passed the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act (TESRA), 229-193. The legislation, which was introduced by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA), would bring about major changes to the 30 year old Endangered Species Act. TESRA would eliminate requirements for "critical habitat," areas of land preserved to prevent habitat loss, and instead give the Fish and Wildlife Service the authority to draft individual "recovery plans" for each listed species. The legislation would also provide compensation to landowners for the value of land that cannot be developed due to the presence of endangered species. Proponents of the bill say it will increase the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act and end needless penalties for landowners. Opponents claim, however, that it will be impossible to protect many species without critical habitat designations, and that landowner payments will create a huge taxpayer burden and discourage the future listing of species.

A substitute amendment proposed by Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Representative George Miller (D-CA), narrowly failed to pass 216-206. The amendment included many of the changes in Pombo's legislation, but would eliminate the landowner reimbursement and would increase the enforcement power behind "recovery plans". TESRA faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where there appears to be less support for its radical changes to the ESA. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) has declared his support for the act, but Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), who heads the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the ESA, says he has some concerns with the new legislation. Chafee is currently waiting to hear from an advisory committee meeting in Keystone, CO before he begins drafting a Senate version of ESA reform legislation.(9/30/05)

Previous Action


The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is a comprehensive bill intended to protect threatened or endangered species. ESA itself has always been controversial among industry and environmentalists, but recently the definition of "critical habitat" has confused the issue.  The term "critical habitat" within in the Endangered Species Act allows for the protection of threatened or endangered species by setting aside a specific geographic area.  ESA states that the federal agencies must make these designations based on the best scientific data in addition to assessing the economic impact of such decisions, and Congress has not passed legislation to refine the definition of critical habitat or sound science in over thirty years.  Recent court rulings on critical habitat have confused the issue by sending contradictory messages. Some rulings charge the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) with failing to protect endangered species, while other cases are throwing out previous litigation that sets aside critical habitat areas.  According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, only 152 of 1,256 threatened or endangered species have the critical habitat designation.  Further information on Congressional Activity related to the ESA can be found at the National Library for the Environments website.

Additional information on the ESA from the 107th Congress.

Sources: E&E Daily, Greenwire

Contributed by Katie Ackerly, Government Affairs Staff, and Peter Douglas, 2005 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern

Background section contains information from the 107th Congress

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program at

Last updated on October 4, 2005.

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