Committee approves bill on determining endangered species

Posted: November 15, 2013

HARRISBURG - Legislation to remove the historic authority of the state fish and game commissions to designate endangered species cleared its first hurdle Wednesday over the objections of outdoorsmen and environmentalists.

By a bipartisan 16-8 vote, the House Game and Fisheries Committee approved a bill to give an appointed regulatory panel the final say as to which species of wildlife and aquatic life are listed.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said Wednesday he was "looking to run" the bill next week.

Rep. Keith Gillespie (R., York), a committee member who described himself as a longtime hunter, said he voted against the bill because it moves away from a science-based approach to managing wildlife, something he called "extremely dangerous."

"These are life-and-death decisions," he said.

The panel that would be given the authority - the Independent Regulatory Review Commission - reviews virtually all regulations in other agencies. Now it would also have the power to decide whether a species should be on the endangered list.

Supporters, such as Committee Chairman Martin Causer (R., Cameron), said that the change would bring consistency and accountability to the process and that a newly accessible public database would allow developers to see whether their projects might be affected by an endangered species.

Bill sponsor Jeff Pyle (R., Armstrong) said a species of endangered mussel had all but halted dredging of parts of the Allegheny River, and said he feared the listing of several types of bat, whose numbers have been decimated by white-nose syndrome disease, might stop development within a wide radius around many structures where they can be found.

But many of those who packed a Capitol hearing room, along with gas and other industry lobbyists, said the change would subjugate science to the whims of a politically appointed board.

"The bill continues to have a fatal flaw," said Jeff Schmidt, executive director of the Sierra Club in Pennsylvania. "It takes the decision out of hands of scientists and puts it in the hands of political appointees."

The fish and game commissions said the shift in control could mean the loss of $27 million in federal funding, but Causer said he was confident the concerns of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department Services had been addressed.

Greg Raffensperger, executive director of the Game and Fisheries Committee, said game and fish scientists would still determine the designations, but their recommendations would be reviewed by the regulatory body the same as other agencies' regulations are now.

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