Outdoor groups protest bill on endangered species

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Legislative proposals that would make it harder to list and protect endangered, threatened and at-risk species in Pennsylvania and make it easier to develop Marcellus Shale gas well sites and pipelines, are attracting a growing list of opponents.

Seven sportsmen’s groups today joined the state Fish and Boat and Game commissions and several environmental organizations in lining up against bills that seek to curb the independent commissions’ authority to protect threatened and endangered species, and give new oversight authority to legislative review committees.

A hearing on both the Senate and House legislative proposals, S.B. 1047 and H.B. 1576, is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the Eberly College of Business and Information Auditorium, 664 Pratt Drive, on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus in Indiana County.

The bills, proposed by Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, and Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, also would eliminate the need for state agencies to consider impacts on hundreds of species of special concern and rare species when reviewing environmental permits.

And they would make it harder for the state Fish and Boat Commission to protect brook trout — the state fish — and prevent development from degrading the state’s purest waterways.

A letter from the hunter and angler groups endorsing the scientific expertise of the fish and game commissions and questioning the politics behind the legislative proposals was delivered via email to all of the state’s legislators today. It was signed by the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs; the Pennsylvania Chapter Quality Deer Management Association; Pennsylvania Chapter Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever; Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited; Pennsylvania Chapter Isaac Walton League; Pennsylvania Chapter national Wild Turkey Federation; and the Pennsylvania Trappers Association.

“The current process keeps the science in and the politics to a minimum,” the groups said in the letter. “The supporters of the bill want the reverse.”

It went on to state that passage of the bills would end a long state tradition of sound, science-based management of animal and plant resources.

John Arway, Fish and Boat Commission executive director, in testimony he will deliver at the hearing, defended the science-based criteria used by the commission to list and de-list species and its efficiency in conducting prompt and efficient reviews of gas well and pipeline development proposals.

“To pass House Bill 1576 or Senate Bill 1047,” he said in his written statement, “would be to reverse 40 years of consistent, transparent and accountable conservation.”

Responding to industry criticism that endangered species considerations have delayed gas well permits, Mr. Arway, said the average time for a Fish and Boat Commission review of a natural gas pipeline application has been reduced from 85 days to 10. And the average time for a Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory review, to determine if a Marcellus Shale gas project site impacts an endangered species, dropped from 30 to 15 days.

Of the 16,600 PNDI searches in 2012, he said, only 124 or less than 1 percent, resulted in the commission requesting species surveys.

Phone calls seeking comment from Mr. Scarnati and Mr. Pyle were not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.

Mr. Pyle, in a phone interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last September, acknowledged and strongly defended his legislation’s strong economic focus and its permitting benefits for the Marcellus Shale gas and coal mining industries.

The Fish and Boat Commission has overseen the listing of state endangered and threatened species since 1974. Today’s list includes 62 endangered or threatened fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, including the shortnosed sturgeon, spotted gar, Massasauga rattlesnake, bog turtle and 10 freshwater mussels species.

In the last five years, Mr. Arway said, the commission has added 13 species to its endangered, threatened and candidate list and removed 11.

There are also 28 species of birds, bats and mammals on the state Game Commission’s endangered and threatened lists, including the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, northern flying squirrel, great egret, short- and long-eared owls and the small-footed and Indiana bats.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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