Governor’s Initiative Aims to Improve Endangered Species Act

During a recent CSG eCademy webcast, “Improving Species Conservation in the West,” Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said the Endangered Species Act needs revision because the finish line—recovering species and removing them from the endangered species list—is often unreachable for states.

Mead is leading an initiative, as chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, to improve the Endangered Species Act and species conservation efforts. He wants to send a message to Congress that the initiative is a bipartisan effort and species are not only important to the West but also to the country as a whole.

“We need to do better,” Mead said. “We need to know where the finish line is and…how to get there.”

Less than 1.5 percent of the species ever listed under the Endangered Species Act have been delisted.

“We can do better to provide the predictability for planners and for business and, frankly, we can do a lot better for species as well,” Mead said.

Wyoming state Sen. Michael Von Flatern said the recent effort to keep the sage-grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act was one of the most comprehensive conservation efforts to date.

In September 2015, after a major conservation endeavor involving cooperation between the federal government, state agencies, private landowners and other stakeholders across the bird’s 11-state range, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew plans to list the bird as a protected species.

“The success of the sage-grouse conservation story led to an effort by the current chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, Gov. Matt Mead, to create a mechanism for states to share best practices and species management and explore ways to improve the efficiency of the Endangered Species Act,” Flatern said.

David Willms, the governor’s policy adviser, discussed the reasons Mead decided to take on the initiative when he became chairman of the Western Governors’ Association.

“In Wyoming, we value wildlife,” Willms said. “Tourism is our second largest industry, and a big part of tourism in Wyoming is derived from its wildlife.”

For more than a dozen years, Wyoming has exceeded recovery goals and objectives for its gray wolf population, yet the species remains on the list, Willms said. First introduced to Wyoming in the mid-1990s, there are now about 400 gray wolves in the state.

“We have a recovered a species–that by all accounts is a recovered species–that still remains on the list,” Willms said. “In order to get them off the list in Montana and Idaho, as many of you know, it took an act of Congress to remove protections for a truly recovered species.”

The total number of species ever listed under the act is 2,332, but the total number ever delisted is 63. The number of species ever delisted due to recovery is 34, Willms said.

“Species are not going extinct, which is certainly a purpose of the act,” he said. “But the other purpose of the act is to recover species to the point that the protections of the act no longer apply.”

Willms said something must be done the help species before they face listing under the Endangered Species Act.

“We need more innovative, incentivized conservation solutions, like we had for sage-grouse, that prevent the need to list species,” he said. “And then we also need to be able to focus resources in a way that allows us to recover and delist species that are currently listed.”

More than $40 million has been spent in Wyoming for the recovery of the grizzly bear, Willms said. The state spent $2.5 million on this effort in 2015 alone.

“That’s money that could be used to go to truly imperiled species to help recover them,” Willms said. “But because we face these challenges with implementation of the act, we’re still spending that money on a recovered species to the detriment of all other listed species.”

A series of workshops have been held across the West with stakeholders to advance Mead’s goal to improve the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act and highlight innovations related to species conservation, said Zach Bodhane, lead policy adviser for the initiative at the Western Governors’ Association. In addition, the association has held webinars to expand the reach of discussions.

“The initiative is designed to provide a framework for states to share best practices in species management, promote and elevate the role of states in species conservation efforts and explore ways to improve the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act,” Bodhane said.

Among key themes, stakeholders have discussed engaging state and local governments in species conservation, taking a species-by-species approach to conservation, changing the Endangered Species Act, and investing in science and measurable outcomes.

“These are going to be continued to be discussed going forward,” Bodhane said. “We’re going to think about them as we progress into years two and three of this initiative.”

Following a policy resolution regarding the Endangered Species Act, the Western Governors’ Association plans to develop a work plan to continue efforts.

Visit the CSG Knowledge Center for the complete webcast.