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Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Committee readies for vote on endangered species bill

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Nov 7, 2013 5:28 PM
Thumbnail image for peregrine-falcon.jpg

Photo by Pennsylvania Game Commission


Environmentalists are standing firm in their opposition of adding more oversight to the process of designating endangered species in Pennsylvania.

The proposal is scheduled for a House committee vote next week. Chairman Rep. Martin Causer (R-McKean County) plans to offer an amendment addressing objections from the state commissions they affect.

"There's strong support from the committee on it," Causer said, adding that the amendment he'll introduce was drafted with the help of the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Gary Haluska (D-Cambria).

Developers of many stripes, including the natural gas industry, support the proposal, which would add oversight to the independent commissions that designate endangered species in Pennsylvania. The Fish and Boat Commission and the Game Commission would send their species designations through a state review board, which opponents point out is filled with political appointees. Designations would also be subject to approval from standing legislative committees.

Jeff Schmidt, with the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, said the plan will gut Pennsylvania's process for protecting wildlife.

"What's at stake here are the species, not simply some kind of inside the Beltway, arcane process that has no impact on the real world," Schmidt said at a press conference Thursday. "It will have a huge impact on rare, threatened, and endangered species going forward in time."

The commissions that control whether a species is labeled endangered also have the power to approve construction permits in areas where those species live. Industry lobbyists say the research behind those decisions should also be disclosed.

Democratic Representative Greg Vitali of Delaware County disagrees. "The database this bill would create would expose threatened, endangered species to poaching and other risks by exposing their specific whereabouts," Vitali said.

But the legislation's supporters call that a weak excuse for not disclosing research on endangered species.

"They don't want that... exposed," said Drew Crompton, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, who has parallel legislation in his chamber to change the endangered species designation process. "If it becomes objective, then there's no leverage." Crompton said the state commissions that control endangered species listings approve permits to build, drill, or pave only after the agencies get something they want from the industry applicant.

In one instance, offered by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the 'ask' was a $50,000 dollar wildlife study.

Both sides are equally vehement about the provision that would include a state review board in endangered species designations. The Independent Regulatory Review Board, as opponents point out, is made up of political appointees.

"They have no scientific staff," said Schmidt after the press conference. The head of the Fish and Boat Commission said IRRC's involvement would be "duplicative."

"I've never heard these accusations of IRRC as I'm hearing now," said Crompton. He scoffed at the idea the board couldn't review science-based decisions, saying its members "deal with these tough regulatory issues all the time."

Causer was similarly optimistic about IRRC's suitability to the task of approving endangered species designations. "I want there to be a defined process and I think IRRC does bring that process to the table," he said.

He said he doubts the Fish and Boat Commissions and Game Commissions tasked with labeling threatened and endangered species will have their decisions second-guessed.

"If they have the data," Causer said, "what do they have to hide?"

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