Republicans push to overhaul the Endangered Species Act before midterms

Endangered Species Act reforms?

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans are pushing nearly a dozen bills that would overhaul the Endangered Species Act, a 45-year-old landmark law that has helped safeguard American icons like the bald eagle and grizzly bear. The proposed legislation would make it harder to get a species on the list and easier to remove it, which Republicans say would modernize the act, while conservationists say the changes would actually gut it.

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Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop  CBS News

The Endangered Species Act is credited with bringing grey wolves, Florida manatees and the humpback whale back from the brink of extinction. Still, Utah Republican Rob Bishop says the act is broken.

"All we are doing is making lists of species. We are not really rehabilitating them," Bishop told CBS News' Nancy Cordes. 

One of his bills would require the government to consider not just science but the cost to business before adding a new animal to the list.

"What I'm saying is, don't specify and limit yourself into looking at what the criteria has to be," Bishop said. 

The push has alarmed conservationists. Jamie Rappaport Clark, who ran the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Clinton, said the act has been wildly successful. 

"Modernize is code for eviscerate or undermine…What it does is it rolls back protections on the brink of extinction," Clark said. 

Republicans argue that long-term protections for animals like the spotted owl hamper logging, drilling and development.

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Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso   CBS News

"The goal is to actually help these species recover," said Wyoming Republican John Barrasso. His bill would turn some of the federal role for protecting endangered animals over to the states.

"I think they have a lot more understanding of what goes on in their state," he said.  

As Congress debates, the Trump administration is looking at ways to act on its own by blocking certain animals from the list like the sage grouse, a bird that lives on oil-rich land out west. 

"We are trying to make it better… So if they want to malign me or malign the process, let those radical groups do it," Bishop said.

Bishop and his colleagues are pushing to pass their bills by the end of the year because there's a chance Democrats could win control of the House this fall and while the White House can act on its own, those changes could always be undone by future administrations.