Endangered species bill fuels Pa. debate

Posted: November 13, 2013

HARRISBURG An industry-backed bill that would shift control of the state's endangered species list from biologists to lawmakers and regulators has touched off a debate in the Capitol.

In the eyes of the natural gas industry, builders' groups, and other business interests, the bill would make the process of listing species more efficient, predictable, and transparent.

A coalition of groups - among them outdoorsmen and women and environmentalists - has united against the bill, saying it would decimate the state's endangered species list, lead to environmental degradation, and threaten millions in federal funding for habitat restoration.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Pyle (R., Armstrong) is scheduled for a vote in the House Game and Fisheries Committee on Wednesday. A similar bill is being offered by Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson).

The legislature returns to work Tuesday for four weeks before breaking for the holidays with no immediate plans to move legislation dealing with liquor privatization, transportation, or pensions - the three top issues identified by Gov. Corbett.

John Arway, executive director of Pennsylvania's Fish and Boat Commission, called the endangered species bill "critically flawed" and said it would dismantle 40 years of science-based decision-making by blocking the agency's ability to list species.

"If it would become law, it would be a huge step backward in Pennsylvania's proud conservation history," Arway said at a news conference last week.

Under the bill, any species could not receive state listing if it was already on the federal list.

The bill also would shift the burden of proof that endangered species are present from developers seeking permits onto government agencies, and mandate a publicly accessible endangered species database.

The game and fish commissions do not make public locations of the endangered species, they said, to protect them from vandals or others who might harm them.

Paul Lyskava, executive director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Industry, said seeing the database before applying for permits would allow timber companies to avoid areas where endangered species live.

Now, he said, companies sometimes find out they cannot log in an area after they have already paid a landowner for the right to do so.

Pyle and industry backers - including the deep-pocketed Marcellus Shale Coalition - say the current permitting process is too slow and holds up development of project sites.

"We are simply asking for sufficient burden of proof that a species is truly endangered or under a threat of extinction," said Pyle, who has lined up 67 cosponsors for his bill. "Not all state agencies are required to play by the same rules when it comes to these designations, and my bill would essentially level the playing field."

Pyle wants the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, a board appointed by the governor and lawmakers that is charged with reviewing all state regulations, and the relevant committees in the House and Senate to have the final say on species listings.

Opponents say the bill requirements would add more layers of bureaucracy.

"It is obviously designed to slow up the process of designating and protecting endangered species," said Nancy Blaney, senior policy adviser for the Animal Welfare Institute, which promotes habitat conservation. "This could slow down the availability of important protections, hamper the state's ability to protect its own wildlife, and, ironically, result in more regulation of business, not less."

Pennsylvania's endangered list includes 28 species of wildlife, 62 species of aquatic life - including fish, amphibians, and reptiles - and a number of plants.

Last year, the fish and game commissions received $27 million from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in grants to restore species' habitats, which constituted a significant portion of the agencies' budgets.

But the grants require that the commissions have independent authority over conservation programs, including how the federal money is spent, which they say they would be eliminated if the bill became law.


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