On July 12, during a press conference at the US Capitol, a procession of suit-wearing white men, steeped in oil-and-gas money, took turns at a podium to declare legislative war on the Endangered Species Act (ESA). First, though, like all good aggressors, they vilified their enemy.
Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, who has received more than $400,000 in oil-and-gas campaign cash over the course of his 15-year congressional career, called the act “the most inept program we have in the federal government.” Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte, best known for body-slamming a political reporter during the 2017 special election, described the law as a “bludgeoning tool for frivolous lawsuits from special-interest groups.” Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, who has raked in nearly $150,000 in oil-and-gas campaign money, implied erroneously that the ESA has relied in the past on “fake science…to achieve some other political purpose that really has nothing to do with the environment.” Standing beside these and other politicians as they spoke was the approving leader of the Western Energy Alliance, a hard-charging trade group that represents some of the most politically influential fossil-fuel corporations in the country.
Taken together, this scene perfectly captured the de facto corruption fueling the current political attack on this country’s most iconic environmental law—and on America’s conservation system more broadly.
At the present moment, an alliance of conservative legislators, Trump administration officials, fossil-fuel front groups and their allies are leading the most sustained attempt in decades to sabotage the ESA. In Congress, Bishop and members of the Western caucus are pushing a package of nine bills that are ostensibly meant to “modernize” the ESA but which, in fact, would mutilate it. Among other things, these bills would make it easier to roll back federal protections for endangered or threatened species, make it harder for citizens’ groups to petition to have a new species protected under the law, effectively make it more costly for legal advocates to use the courts to enforce the act, and give additional influence to state and local governments that are so often captured by industry interests.
In defense of the package and its sponsors, Tanner Hanson, a spokesperson for the congressional Western Caucus, says the legislative package is an effort to correct “deficiencies, themselves not intended by Congress, that have put roadblocks in front of conservation, development, or both” and “that might not otherwise be evident to the average lay-supporter of the Act.”
“Our members have long been vocal advocates for a policy of responsible economic development—energy, infrastructure, you name it,” he adds. “If it boosts the American economy and the position of the average worker without generating significant externality, they’ll give it serious consideration.”
As these bills move through Congress, President Trump’s Interior Department is also working to undermine the law with a series of policies it proposed last month. The administration, for instance, wants to erase regulatory language that prohibits federal wildlife officials from considering economic impacts when determining whether to protect a species. It also wants to water down protections for “threatened” species, a category of imperilment one notch below “endangered.”
This tag-team attack has been many years in the making. The ESA is an extraordinarily potent and popular law that has saved hundreds of animals from extinction while constraining the worst excesses of industrial pollution and habitat destruction. The act has achieved this feat because it has claws—and these claws can hurt, as when a little fish called the snail darter temporarily forced a halt to the construction of Tennessee’s Tellico Dam in the early 1970s. If you’re a developer or an extraction-industry giant, and an endangered species lives in the path of your project, you have a problem.
The law’s tough and effective restrictions on industry have earned it powerful enemies. Chief among them are the oil-and-gas companies, mining firms, and other extractive concerns that hold sway in Washington, DC. These interests want to invalidate the Endangered Species Act, and they have been pursuing this goal meticulously and on multiple fronts—with particular luck of late, as an industry-beholden GOP has marched to power first in the House, and then the Senate, and finally the White House too.
In recent years, for instance, wildlife advocates have witnessed targeted industry-backed campaigns to block or roll back federal protection for imperiled species like the greater sage grouse and the American burying beetle. As The Nation reported in 2015, fossil-fuel heavyweights waged a particularly bold effort in the waning years of the Obama administration to keep the grouse off the endangered species list, fearing that a listing of the iconic ground-dwelling bird would severely restrict drilling and mining operations in a huge swath of the American West. That campaign was largely successful; Obama’s Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately declined to list the species under the ESA, despite its long-term drop in population numbers and a government finding in 2010 that it warranted protection. The Obama administration opted instead to try to protect the bird with a series of less stringent landscape-scale conservation plans, which are now under attack by Trump’s Interior Department.
Fossil-fuel interests have spent huge sums as well to put their anti-environmental friends in positions of political power, including Representative Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, and Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, who chairs the congressional Western Caucus. This has had the intended effect: The Center for Biological Diversity, an endangered species advocacy group, reports that there have been more than 200 legislative attacks on the ESA since the Supreme Court’s 2010 a ruling, including the current congressional effort to “reform” the law into oblivion.
To justify their anti-ESA scheme, industry and allied politicians argue that the law is broken. They say it has failed to adequately rehabilitate imperiled species, pointing to the fact that most protected species have remained on the endangered species list indefinitely. This narrative has not entered the mainstream by accident. Here again we find a coordinated campaign at work: Think tanks and policy shops with deep financial ties to petrobillionaires like the Koch brothers have labored intently in recent years to cast the ESA as a failed and controversial law that must be reformed. The Property and Environment Research Center, for instance, is a free-market think tank that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Charles G. Koch Foundation and other Koch-linked dark money funds. Over the last couple weeks, its research fellows have taken to the public airwaves and prominent op-ed pages to portray the ESA as highly flawed and to offer support for the GOP’s political assault.
At the same time, affiliates of the State Policy Network, a Koch brothers–backed constellation of conservative think tanks, have been working the press—and the courts—to stoke opposition to endangered-species regulations.
“With the ESA so much in the news, we should bear in mind that when it comes to endangered species, the ESA is a terrible approach to saving them having an abysmal track record of success,” wrote Robert Henneke of the far-right Texas Public Policy Foundation last December in The Hill. TPPF is a State Policy Network affiliate that has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Charles G. Koch Foundation and has sued repeatedly to roll back ESA listings in the Lone Star state.
Then there are groups like Strata, a Utah-based research organization that has also taken big money from the Koch network. In the last two years, it has been churning out reports, videos, and op-eds asserting the ESA’s failures, including its “perverse incentives that inadvertently encourage individuals and the public to preemptively destroy species and their habitats.” The group promotes a “voluntary” species-conservation model as an alternative to government regulation.
PERC, TPPF, and Strata, it’s worth noting, have all had meetings or phone conferences with high-level political appointees inside the Interior Department since the Trump administration took office, according to the work calendars of numerous Interior Department officials reviewed by The Nation. In November 2017, for instance, representatives of PERC held an “ESA reform discussion” with Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a leading force in the effort to administratively undermine the law, as well as other high-level officials, according to public records.
This legislative and public-relations campaign against the ESA, meanwhile, isn’t an isolated assault. It comes amid a broader offensive against America’s bedrock conservation laws and institutions. Of particular note is the conservative crusade against the Antiquities Act of 1906, which saw groups like Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network, PERC, and Strata help lead a savvy pressure operation at the local, state, and federal level to gut that foundational environmental statute. As The Nation reported in December, this effort culminated in the largest rollback of federal land protections in American history when the Trump administration slashed the size of both the Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in Utah last year.
Ordinary Americans aren’t asking for any of this. Most people don’t want our country’s conservation laws and institutions destroyed—least of all the ESA. When people see grizzly bears in Glacier National Park or gray wolves in the Boundary Waters Wilderness or bald eagles and ospreys gliding above rivers and streams across the nation, they witness clear evidence of the law’s fundamental effectiveness and essential value. Approximately 99 percent of species that have been listed under the act, including the grizzly bear, gray wolf, American alligator, and bald eagle, still survive today. The ESA is a last line of defense against species death. It works. And so it is immensely popular, with a stratospheric 83 percent public-approval rating. (Congress, for its part, has a dismal 16 percent job-approval rating.)
Still, Rob Bishop and his unpopular colleagues have the nerve to try to turn this law into an irrelevant rubber stamp—all for the industry donors that fill up their campaign coffers every couple of years.
Those donors aren’t likely to relinquish their anti-environmental crusade anytime soon. Even if Bishop and his allies fail to gut the ESA this year, even if Republicans are swept out of power in November’s elections, industry groups will continue to scheme, strategize, and spend heavily to roll back crucial conservation institutions. They will still be planning long-term attacks on our bedrock environmental programs and policies.
This raises the crucial question: How can the American people, who broadly support laws like the ESA, move past this perennial threat to the public interest?
One possible way forward was suggested by researchers with the Democracy Collaborative in the pages of The Nation last year. Writing of the urgent need to address the climate crisis, they proposed a full-scale federal takeover of the fossil-fuel sector:
[T]he government should…undertake a massive buyout of the US fossil-fuel industry, acquiring a controlling ownership stake in ExxonMobil, Chevron, Arch Coal, and the other major American oil, gas, and coal companies that hold the planet’s future in their untrustworthy hands.
Critically, this would neuter their political opposition to what must be done to save the planet.
This proposal applies equally to the issue of climate progress and endangered-species conservation. It offers an enticing strategy for neutralizing the principal political enemy of comprehensive ecological sanity in this country. Right now, of course, the idea is a daydream. Then again, with the dual threats of climate change and mass species extinction growing more dire by the day, this sort of radical action may yet gain broad public support.
Still, at the present moment, the Endangered Species Act is in extreme peril. No matter the outcome of the November midterms, Representative Bishop and friends have many months to push their proposals through Congress, and the lame-duck session this winter will be a frightful time for wildlife advocates. Those advocates—from the Center for Biological Diversity, to Defenders of Wildlife, to the Endangered Species Coalition—will almost certainly fight with full force to protect the ESA itself from extinction. The question is, will the public, which overwhelmingly supports the act, join them?