Signed into law in 1973, the goal of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was to preserve, protect and recover key domestic species. However, today the law is failing to achieve its primary purpose of species recovery and instead has become a tool for litigation that drains resources away from real recovery efforts and blocks job-creating economic activities.

Congress last renewed the ESA in 1988, which means it has been 25 years since any substantial updates have been made – long before the Internet and cell phones were as widespread and available for commercial use as they are today. With new technological capabilities readily available and strong support for conserving endangered species, there are key areas where improvements could be made to make the law more effective for both species and people in the 21st century. After more than four decades, the ESA should be modernized and updated to once again focus the law on true species recovery.

ESA-Related Litigation and DOI’s “Mega-Settlements”:

Excessive litigation has become one of the greatest obstacles to the success of the ESA. Instead of focusing on recovering endangered species, groups are using the ESA to file hundreds of lawsuits against the government. In response, agencies have to spend time and financial resources addressing those lawsuits instead of species recovery.

In 2011, the Obama Administration’s Department of the Interior (DOI) announced it had negotiated settlements, behind closed-doors, with two litigious environmental organizations. While DOI touts the settlements as “an improvement of the ESA,” the settlements raise serious questions about the Obama Administration’s scope of authority and lack of transparency on the ESA. Over the past year, the following facts were uncovered relating to the “mega-settlements”:

  • The settlements require DOI to decide by 2016 whether to list 779 species and designate critical habitat in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

  • In the year since the settlements have been signed, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has already moved ahead to list 107 more species.

  • Implementation of the settlement could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars just to complete required regulatory paperwork, according to testimony heard by the Committee.

  • According to the Department of Justice, more than 500 ESA-related lawsuits were filed or opened against the federal government since 2009, and more than $21 million has been awarded in taxpayer funded attorneys’ fees to environmental lawyers through the Judgment Fund and the Equal Access to Justice Act. Some attorneys are paid as much as $450 per hour for their efforts to sue under the ESA.

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