November 15, 2013
This story includes reporting by Pennsylvania Public Radio Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Wilson.
For nearly 40 years, Pennsylvania has been trying to save plants, animals, and fish from extinction through the Endangered Species Act. The Game Commission and the Fish and Boat Commission have historically been in charge of deciding which species are officially at risk.
The bill just approved by a House committee would take that job out of their hands. Instead, an independent state review panel,(appointed by the legislature and the governor) and the legislature, would decide which species should be considered endangered or threatened.
Republican state Representative Jeff Pyle of Armstrong County sponsored the bill. He's clear about its intent: he wants the process to be more business-friendly.
"If you go back and look at the Game Commission and Fish and Boat’s charter, they’re not allowed to make any decisions based on economic reasons. But I think in today’s economy, and with jobless figures the way they are, it has to be considered. There’s a balance to everything," said Pyle.
According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association all signed a letter supporting the bill.
But opponents of the bill say industry and politicians shouldn't be making scientific decisions.
"This is what the industries want. They want the authority removed from the Fish and Boat Commission and the Game Commission and they want it now to be under political control," said Laura Jackson.
Jackson is a conservationist from Bedford County who opposes the changes. She is joined by the directors of the Fish and Boat Commission, the Game Commission, the Sierra Club of Pennsylvania, and other environment and sportmen's groups.
Jackson takes issues with comments by industry leaders that the changes would provide a check and balance to the current system.
"That check and balance system is built into the scientific method. They’re talking about checks and balances on a political level, and that’s totally different," Jackson said.
There are also concerns that Pennsylvania could lose $27 million dollars in federal funds if the bill becomes law. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires that agencies have independent authority over species designations. Lawmakers crafted an amendment to the bill, in an effort to avoid this loss.
The bill is scheduled for a vote by the full House next week, and will then move to the Senate.