AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There's a new push to change the Endangered Species Act. About 1,600 plant and animal species are listed under the landmark regulation. But lawmakers, mostly in the West, want states to have more of a say. Wyoming Public Radio's Cooper McKim reports.
COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: Back in 1995, Sharon Taylor helped reintroduce the endangered Wyoming toad in this national wildlife refuge. At one point, there had been just 16 of these wild toads in this spot, the last of their species. Today...
SHARON TAYLOR: Let's put him.
MCKIM: ...Taylor kneels by a lake with her two daughters. She picks up the brown, warty amphibian with blue rubber gloves.
TAYLOR: This is Katelyn's. Christina, step back 'cause we don't want to step on him.
MCKIM: Taylor places the toad near the water as it squeaks and hops in.
TAYLOR: There he goes.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: That's adorable.
TAYLOR: You've now released an endangered species.
MCKIM: Thanks to a 30-year collaboration between federal agencies, the state and nonprofits, there are now about 1,500 Wyoming toads. Doug Keinath is leading the release. He's with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says, unfortunately, this species still isn't close to being taken off the Endangered Species list. As to when that might happen...
DOUG KEINATH: That is a biological question, not a political question.
MCKIM: But it is often a political question, too. The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, is credited with keeping 99 percent of listed species from going extinct. Still, critics contend the act is ineffective, burdening local wildlife managers with excessive federal oversight and leading to endless legal battles to get species off the list.
One solution, say critics, give states more power over their endangered species. Brian Nesvik is with the Game and Fish Department in Wyoming, where grizzly bears are listed as endangered.
BRIAN NESVIK: By all biological and scientific measures, grizzly bears have been recovered in Wyoming since 2003. And to this day, after being delisted once and relisted again, they still remain under federal protections. The goal is not perpetual federal management.
MCKIM: Wyoming's Governor Matt Mead agrees. He's leading an effort among Western governors to review the Endangered Species Act. The National Governors Association unanimously adopted the initiative in March. Congress is stepping up its own efforts, too. Since January, there have been 28 proposals to change the bill. That's dramatically more than in years past.
Wyoming Senator John Barrasso points out only 3 of every 100 species are healthy enough to be delisted.
JOHN BARRASSO: As a doctor, if I admit a hundred patients to the hospital and only three recover enough under my treatment to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license.
MCKIM: He's held two Senate sessions to discuss, quote, "modernizing" the act. But that's a term the conservation community finds troubling.
NOAH GREENWALD: I think these calls are entirely disingenuous. Modernize is a euphemism for gut protections for endangered species.
MCKIM: Noah Greenwald is with the Center for Biological Diversity. He says species like grizzly bears may be recovered at a local level, but that doesn't mean they're recovered nationally. And he says the ESA is meant to be a last line of defense.
GREENWALD: The states have primary jurisdiction over wildlife within their boundaries. The fact that species get listed reflects the fact that they weren't able to manage that.
MCKIM: He says states simply don't have the expertise or funding to properly protect their species. And even with federal and state support, recovery often just needs time. Take the Wyoming toad. More than two decades since their first reintroduction in this national refuge, scientists say they still need to watch closely to see how many can survive on their own.
For NPR News, I'm Cooper McKim.
CORNISH: That story came to us from a public media collaboration called Inside Energy that focuses on America's energy issues.
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