The U.S. Senate rejected an attempt to strip federal protections for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken on Wednesday, just the latest in a series of Republican-led attacks on the Endangered Species Act.
Confined to the grasslands of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, the rapidly declining Lesser Prairie-Chicken was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act last March. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it no longer exists in 84 percent of its historic range.
But a measure introduced by Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) would have delisted the bird before federal efforts to save it could even get underway. The measure got 54 votes. Close, but thankfully no cigar: it needed 60 to pass.
“The vote indicated a strong partisan divide,” said Robert Dewey, vice president of government relations and external affairs at Defenders of Wildlife. Every Senate Republican voted in favor of the measure, whereas only one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted for it.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken measure came up in the context of the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline bill, Dewey explained. Lawmakers have been adding both “germane and non-germane amendments” to the bill—in other words, lawmakers larded the text of the Keystone XL bill to trick their colleagues into voting for laws they didn’t know they were voting for. (A similar thing happened last week, when a sneak clause forced the Senate to acknowledge climate change as real for the first time in its history.)
The political back-and-forth about what species end up on the list is nothing new. Political controversies over the ESA date back at least as far as the late 1970s, when Congress green-lighted a Tennessee dam expected to wipe out the snail darter. (Luckily, other populations of the tiny fish were later found.)
Attacks on the ESA have stepped up in recent years. Some measures take aim at de-listing—or preventing the listing—of specific species that stand in the way of development, such as the Delta smelt or American burying beetle. Other measures would re-write the law entirely or eviscerate certain parts of it, such as the conservation groups' ability to bring ESA lawsuits.
Most attempts failed. But in 2011, Congress delisted the gray wolves of Montana and Idaho, paving the way for hunting that has killed more than 1,500 in the less than four years since.
Last month, Congress passed a measure that temporarily prevents federal officials from listing the Greater Sage-Grouse. It was widely seen as Obama’s pound of flesh given in trade for a spending bill.
“These actions politicize decisions," Dewey noted, "that really should be made by agency officials based on the best scientific information.”