State Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, R-Indiana, was outraged when a local school had to waste time and money responding to fruitless worries that a construction project would harm endangered wildlife.
So Pyle wrote a bill aimed at going after environmental regulators he feels are too powerful and too unaccountable for the actions.
“For some reason, someone decided we had to spend extra money to protect (wild animals) that aren’t there,” Pyle said at a public hearing in Pottsville on Monday.
His bill has gotten plenty of support in the Legislature and in the business community, where lobbying organizations are lining up to fight for wholesale changes to the way Pennsylvania determines what an endangered species is.
Sixty-eight members of the 153-member House of Representatives signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, including lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Democratic co-sponsors include Rep. Frank Burns of East Taylor Township.
An identical version of the bill was introduced in the state Senate by President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson.
Pyle and other promoters of the legislation say it is chiefly aimed at demanding that the state’s Fish and Boat Commission and Game Commission publicly explain how and why they determined an animal is threatened in Pennsylvania generally or in a particular part of the state.
“Show your proof,” Pyle said. “Right now, we don’t have that.”
Pyle’s sentiments were echoed by George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, who said the coal industry was caught flat-footed when the Fish and Boat Commission announced that 96 streams were being protected because of the large number of trout in them. With only 30 days to respond, the coal operators were unable to organize their objections before the public comment period expired, Ellis said in an interview Monday.
But opponents said that the bill will bring politics into decisions about endangered wildlife and that the bill does too much to defang the environmental regulators.
By stripping the Fish and Boat Commission and Game Commission of ultimate authority, the bill could also cost them $27 million in federal funding for protecting endangered wildlife, John Organ, chief of the division of wildlife and sport fish restoration at the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, warned in a letter to the state agencies earlier this month.
John Arway, executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission, said that the bill could effectively eliminate the state’s endangered wildlife list. Animals identified as endangered in Pennsylvania may exist in healthy populations in other parts of the country, but are so rare here that regulators fear they could disappear. Animals on the federal endangered species list are considered endangered nationally, but may exist in healthy numbers in a particular state.
The bill states that any animal is only endangered if it’s threatened throughout “its range” rather than in the commonwealth. There are at least 10 species that would lose protection by this change, according to the Fish and Boat Commission's analysis.
In some ways, the conflict has been intensified by the growth of the natural gas industry, Arway said.
Arway said his regulators have made a concentrated effort to identify valuable trout streams in response to lobbying from gas companies. The gas industry got burned on occasions when drillers sought permits in areas only to have regulators then announce that the waterways were environmentally significant. So, the Fish and Boat Commission launched an effort to document valuable trout streams before anyone begins trying to develop around them, Arway said. In many cases, these were waterways that scientists suspected had trout in them, but they were in rural areas where there wasn’t much environmental threat. However, the expansion of gas drilling has created development pressure in even the most isolated corners of the state, he said.
Who’s on the list?
Some of the species that could lose protection under proposed changes in environmental regulations:
Blue-spotted salamander: It was unknown in Pennsylvania until 2000 when it was discovered in McKean County. Since then, it has been found only at two other locations in Northampton and Warren counties. The blue-spotted salamander is 4 to 5 1⁄2 inches long, but nearly half of that is tail. The salamander’s spots resemble the patterns of pots and pans known as graniteware.
Rough green snake: It’s considered one of Pennsylvania’s rarest reptiles. There was a sighting in Greene County in 1924, but otherwise, it’s known to exist in only Chester and Lancaster counties. Adults are 18 to 30 inches long.
Northern cricket frog: It’s Pennsylvania’s smallest frog. This frog has been eliminated from 92 percent of its historical (pre-1983) locations. In addition, of the six populations discovered since 1983, three already have disappeared.
Redbelly turtle: Most of the state’s redbelly turtles are in Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. There are also reports of isolated populations of eastern redbelly turtles as far west as Adams and Franklin counties. Eastern redbellies are large compared to other Pennsylvania turtles. Adult males have an average length of more than 10 inches, and females are nearly 12 inches.
Southern leopard frog: As its name implies, this 2- to 3-inch frog is found throughout the southern United States, but in Pennsylvania is known to exist only in the suburban counties around Philadelphia.
Source: Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission