SALT LAKE CITY — Iron County Commissioner David Miller says the subjugation of his county by a 3-pound rodent deemed imperiled by the federal government has been a demeaning, frustrating experience.
"To say it has been a nightmare is an understatement," Miller said Tuesday, detailing golf courses and airports that have been destroyed by Utah prairie dogs, with the county left largely with little or no recourse.
So Miller said it should be no surprise that his county lands squarely in favor of a measure co-sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that would institute reforms to the Endangered Species Act that requires detailing taxpayer dollars spent on related litigation.
"Anytime the American people know what the government is doing with their money, regardless of the perceived value, is a good thing. It is very important to keep trust and accountability," Miller said.
The 21st Century Endangered Species Transparency Act, HR4315, passed the House on Tuesday and awaits action in the Senate.
Bishop, a former Box Elder County schoolteacher, said the legislation is needed to correct what he says is the "flunking" performance of an act abused by environmental groups.
“The Endangered Species Act isn’t working. The ultimate goal is to ensure that threatened and endangered species are successfully recovered and that long-term management plans are put into place," he said. "This legislation puts us on a path to do that. Without updates we will maintain the status quo, which has had a success rate of just 2 percent. In every classroom in America, that counts as a failing grade. We have to do better."
The congressional measure represents another effort by mostly Western states to dull what they say is the sharp overreach of the Endangered Species Act.
A bill by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., seeks a 10-year delay of any listing action taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the greater sage grouse, allowing Congress to trump any agency decision if a state has a management plan in place and seeks congressional approval.
Such a listing for Utah and 10 other states is widely seen as a move that would deliver a crippling blow to a wide slate of industrial and agricultural activity — including oil and gas development, ranching, even transmission lines for renewable energy.
Utah, hoping to ward off a listing, ponied up $2 million in the most recent legislative session for a Washington, D.C., contract to put pressure on the U.S. Department of Interior and for other lobbying efforts.
The contract has been the target of criticism among pro sage grouse groups and others who question the process. On Thursday, members of a Utah legislative appropriations subcommittee are scheduled to discuss the issue.
Wildlife advocates say Bishop's measure is part of an ongoing assault by House leadership to weaken protections for imperiled wildlife.
"To vote for this bill is to vote to destroy our nation’s commitment to conserve our imperiled natural heritage for generations to come. Contrary to the claims of the bill’s sponsors, this bill does nothing to speed recovery of our nation’s most imperiled species," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive officer of Defenders of Wildlife.
But Bishop said key among the improvements the bill would bring is the requirement that the federal government publicly disclose the data it is using to propose listing a species.
Mark Ward, senior policy analyst with the Utah Association of Counties, said disclosure of the science behind the process would solve a long-standing complaint around endangered species protections.
"It has been a problem for years. The counties have long suspected the science is drummed up by so-called scientists who work for organizations that want a listing," Ward said. "These battles over listings always boil down to the science. Anything that would make that process more transparent is a good step."
Bruce Adams, a commissioner in San Juan County, said he also supports any effort that would make the process more accountable.
San Juan County is among an 11-county coalition that has sought to delay a listing of the Gunnison sage grouse pending a federal review of what county-by-county action has been taken to save the bird.
"There are 11 counties in the region that have the Gunnison sage grouse, and 10 of those are in Colorado," he said. "We have a very small, satellite population."
Adams said he suspects a driving reason for the bird's historic decline has been the endangered species protections extended to animals that routinely feed on the eggs, such as ravens and the American eagle.
"So many of the predators are protected, so to me, the Gunnison won't survive even if they are listed," he said. "It is really frustrating."