Montana’s congressional delegation urges federal agencies to finalize ESA rule changes

Republican members of Montana’s congressional delegation on Wednesday sent a letter to federal officials in support of changes to the Endangered Species Act meant to speed timber work on critical habitat. The state’s Democratic senator said he also supports the changes.

The proposed amendments to interagency consultation regulations would reverse precedent set in a 2015 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision over critical Canada lynx habitat.

Judges on the case determined that when “new information” indicates a land management plan’s direction might harm a federally-protected species, the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This includes when a new species is listed as threatened or critical habitat is designated.

The rule changes proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service in January would remove the consultation requirement for land management plans. The plans are broad documents that guide public land decisions, but don’t authorize specific projects.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale — both Montana Republicans — signed and sent a letter urging the two agencies to approve the proposed changes. The agencies opened a comment period on the proposed rule change in January. It closes Thursday.

“A requirement to reinitiate consultation on completed programmatic decisions is not grounded in law, regulations, or logic for that matter,” and it has “resulted in myriad copycat lawsuits in Montana,” Daines and Rosendale wrote.

Daines and Rosendale urged agencies to finalize the rule to “preserve the land planning process, re-establish consistency within land management agencies, remove any ambiguity that could be exploited in litigation, and ensure the Services’ time and resources are not further diverted from critical wildlife conservation work.”

Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester also praised the proposed rule change on Wednesday.

“I am glad the Fish and Wildlife Service is listening to folks on the ground and cutting red tape through this rule change,” Tester said. “Taxpayer resources should go towards protecting endangered species and creating jobs, not shuffling paperwork, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on implementation of this rule to make sure it does just that.”

Despite the applause from lawmakers, others worry the revisions could hinder efforts to protect endangered and threatened species.

John Meyer, attorney with the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center — the firm that sued over Canada lynx habitat in 2015 —has maintained that broad direction from land management plans is important for the survival of endangered species.

He said the agencies’ revisions would direct federal officials to only look at the site-by-site impacts of public lands decisions instead of the big picture. Issues like climate change can’t be looked at on a project level, according to Meyer.

“This is the last gasp by the Trump administration to weaken the Endangered Species Act in response to a lawsuit that Cottonwood won,” he said.