Outdoors notebook: Endangered species bill threatens wildlife agency funding

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Next week state legislators will vote on a bill that backers say would make it easier for gas drillers to avoid environmentally sensitive areas.

But House Bill 1576 would also take management of threatened and endangered species out of the hands of the Game Commission and Fish and Boat Commission, transfer power to the legislature and strip state wildlife agencies of nearly $30 million per year, redirecting it to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Introduced by Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong (with a parallel Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson), the Endangered Species Coordination Act would alter the state's established wildlife management structure. Endangered species designations set by the independent wildlife agencies would require the approval of House and Senate committees and a joint legislative regulatory review committee. Plants, fish and land animals on the endangered and threatened lists would be automatically delisted every two years and the legislative committees would vote to reconfirm their status.

The bills would also shift the burden of identifying the presence of endangered species from developers or industries to the government agencies, prohibit designating species as threatened or endangered if they're already so listed by the federal government, and create a public database listing precisely where endangered species are living.

Representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which directs federal taxes on hunting and fishing purchases back to the states in the form of wildlife restoration grants, have challenged the bill arguing its passage could threatened the wildlife agencies' eligibility to access the grants. The grant program requires the agencies to have independent authority over species designations, conservation programs and how the grant money and license revenue are spent. In 2013, the Game Commission received $19 million in federal wildlife restoration grants; Fish and Boat got $8 million.

Last week, legislators and leaders of assorted agencies and non-profit groups gathered in Harrisburg to challenge the upcoming vote. Opposing the legislation were Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Philadelphia, co-chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee; Rep. Steve McCarter, D-Montgomery/Philadelphia; Fish and Boat executive director John Arway; Game Commission executive director Carl Roe; PennFuture chief counsel George Jugovic and policy director Steve Stroman; Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter senior director Jeff Schmidt and Trout Unlimited Eastern Water Project director Katy Dunlap. The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and Northeast Pennsylvania Audubon Society also oppose the bill.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association signed a letter supporting the bill. The vote is scheduled for Wednesday.


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