Proposed legislation that will make it harder to list and protect endangered species in Pennsylvania and easier to site Marcellus Shale gas wells could also endanger more than $27 million a year in federal funding for the state's fish and game commissions.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the bills recently introduced by Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, and Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, would curb the authority of the independent commissions to protect threatened and endangered species and give the Legislature more control over the listings.
And that might make the state commissions ineligible for federal fish and wildlife restoration grants, said John Organ, chief of the USFWS Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration, in an email last week.
"This could be a violation of federal regulations and result in loss of eligibility to participate in the grant programs," Mr. Organ said, assessing the impact of the proposed changes. He expressed similar "significant concerns" in an Aug. 9 letter to Pennsylvania Game Commission executive director Carl Roe.
This year, the Game Commission received a federal wildlife restoration grant of $19 million, or 24 percent of its budget. The Fish and Boat Commission got federal fish restoration funding of $8.3 million, approximately 29 percent of its budget.
The federal grant program rules require the commissions to have independent authority over species conservation programs and how federal species restoration grant money and license revenue is spent.
Both commissions have strongly signaled their opposition to the legislative proposals.
"It's certainly got my attention knowing that a quarter of my budget is at risk," said John Arway, state Fish and Boat Commission executive director. "We believe the bills would stop our ability to list species, and that goes to the very heart of our mission as an independent commission of state government."
In addition to requiring that all endangered species designations by the two commissions be approved by House and Senate committees and a joint legislative regulatory review committee, the Republican-proposed bills would require that plants, fish or animals on the endangered and threatened listings be delisted and reconfirmed every two years by those legislative committees.
The bills also would prohibit the designation of species as state threatened or endangered if they are already federally listed; shift the burden and financial costs of proving the presence of endangered species to government agencies instead of developers or industries applying for permits to operate in a specific area; and create a centralized publicly accessible endangered species database that would enable individuals, developers or industry to identify their locations.
The fish and game commissions say pinpointing locations where endangered species can be found could result in habitat disruption and public collecting or poaching, that could jeopardize the species.
Mr. Pyle, whose bill has 67 cosponsors in the 203-member House, said he introduced the legislation after a school district in his legislative district was required to pay thousands of dollars to mitigate the impact of a new school construction project on the habitat of the Indiana bat, a federal and state endangered species, even though no bats were found on the school property.
"We're not trying to be mean to the animals," Mr. Pyle said in a phone interview last week. "But what happens when protecting animals screws up our lives as humans?"
Although he earlier blamed the state Game Commission for the bat ruling that cost his local school district mitigation money, he now concedes that it was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision and his state legislation would have no effect on that federal agency.
But he said he knows of six other instances during the last three years when the Game Commission raised questions about bat habitat during a state permitting process.
Asked if any of those permits were denied, he said they were not.
He also said he's had complaints about the science used to designate species as endangered and about the lack of an appeal process for the listings by the fish and game commissions.
And he acknowledged the legislation's strong economic focus, especially its benefits for the shale gas drilling industry.
He said it was "fair" to say that the proposed changes to the species listings process would most benefit the Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry, although the coal industry will also welcome it.
"The gas guys have said this legislation is great because now when they buy the gas rights they have no way of checking if the property is in the endangered range. This bill allows them to check if it's in the range," Mr. Pyle said.
"The oil and gas industry has provided tremendous employment. All I'm asking is for the commissions to show us the proof that the animals are there."
Mr. Pyle said House Republican Caucus attorneys have told him the federal species restoration money wouldn't be lost if his bill becomes law, just re-appropriated to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
A joint hearing on the proposed legislation, HB 1576 by the House Environmental Resources and Energy, and House Game and Fisheries, is scheduled for 10 a.m. Sept. 17 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Northpointe Campus, 167 Northpointe Blvd., Building 167, Room 129.
An earlier hearing on the bills was held Aug. 26 in Pottsville, Schuylkill County. At that hearing, Mr. Roe testified that the fish and game commissions have the expertise and experience to best manage the state endangered species program.
"It is an increase in bureaucracy that results in totally inefficient and ineffective governance," Mr. Roe said. "Having an independent regulatory commission review the actions of another independent regulatory commission is redundant government that will negatively impact our constituents and will negatively impact our wildlife resources."
There are 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.
The Fish and Boat Commission oversees the listing of 62 state 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 PFBC has added 13 species to its endangered list and removed 11.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.