Legislators playing a dangerous game with endangered species

Tom VeneskyA recent drive over the backroads of northern Indiana County provided a clue.

It's been almost 40 years since the General Assembly amended the Pennsylvania Game Law effectively adopting the federal Endangered Species List as the state list as well. The move meant that the Pennsylvania Game Commission could add or delete species to the list.

Four years later, the Pennsylvania Endangered Species Program was launched, which funneled federal money to the state to help determine and protect threatened and endangered species. Since then, 73 species have been listed as either threatened or endangered in Pennsylvania over nearly 40 years.

That's why it struck me as odd, if not disturbing, that two bills geared toward gutting the way Pennsylvania lists and protects threatened and endangered species (House Bill 1576 and Senate Bill 1047) were recently introduced. In a nutshell, the bills call for a re-evaluation of all threatened and endangered species listings and would implement a new listing process.

After nearly 40 years, why change things now?

Could it have something to do with the orange survey ribbons and stakes that line the rural dirt roads of parts of Indiana County?

Shallow gas drilling has long been a part of the landscape in Indiana County, but the ribbons and stakes all point to something new — Marcellus shale. At several locations road signs indicated that seismic crews were conducting tests, and the ribbons were placed to mark where they would be doing their work.

That revelation lessened my surprise by the introduction of the two bills — both brought to the table by legislators from Indiana and nearby Jefferson counties.

The timing could be a coincidence, but when I see evidence that Marcellus shale exploration is occurring at the same time two bills are introduced by legislators in the area to weaken the state Endangered Species Act, it's easy to put two and two together.

What better way to make a push for Marcellus shale into a new area than by weakening a few environmental regulations that may hinder the process? It certainly can't be because the Game and Pennsylvania Fish & Boat commissions have been abusing their authority when it comes to endangered species. If anything, both agencies have been extremely thorough and conservative when it comes to listing species.

Over the last 10 years, the PGC has added only three species to the threatened or endangered list. The PF&BC has added 13 and de-listed 11 over the last five years.

Yes, it's my assumption that the ribbons, stakes and seismic testing going on in northern Indiana County are linked to the recent legislative move to change the way Pennsylvania protects its endangered species, but here's another clue that I may be right: Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, who introduced the House version of the bill, is chair of the Environmental Resources and Energy Subcommittee on Mining.

Regardless of the reason behind the bills, it's disturbing to think that after almost 40 years of protecting threatened and endangered species in the state, our legislators appear willing to take a step backward.
If preventing a species from becoming extinct takes a backseat to promoting industry, then nothing is off-limits anymore when it comes to our environment.

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