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The Endangered Species Act, the nation’s 40-year-old law of last resort for protecting wildlife from extinction, has become an economic roadblock to farmers and the coal and oil industry, witnesses told a congressional field hearing Wednesday.

Most of the witnesses zeroed in on the possible listing of sage grouse as an endangered species, a move they said would jeopardize economic activity in key livestock, oil, gas and coal regions of the state. The hearing, at Montana State University Billings, was held by Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee, including Montana’s lone congressman, Rep. Steve Daines.

“Our ranch site is right in the middle of high-quality sage grouse habitat,” said Lesley Robinson, a Phillips County commissioner and Montana Stockgrowers Association member. “Any action will have significant economic impact on the rural economies of this area and the state.”

Located north of the Missouri River on the Hi-Line, Phillips County does $80 million in commodities business annually, Robinson said. Wheat, cattle and natural gas are big businesses there, which could be affected by rules imposed to protect endangered sage grouse.

Daines said the Endangered Species Act was in need of an overhaul. The number of species added to the list has grown over the years, but few animals have been removed. Committee member Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said only 1 percent of the species listed have eventually been removed from the list.

The statistic cited by Lummis has been reiterated often by Republican lawmakers who argue that the law become a “sue and settlement” tool for groups opposed to economic development on federal lands. The law prevents the federal government from doing anything that could destroy or alter habitat critical to endangered plants and animals.

“This law is well-intentioned,” Daines said, recounting a conversation he recently had with a Montana rancher. “I just heard the other day from a rancher that when you think about the ESA, it was crafted in 1973. He said ‘it’s like a 40-year-old ranch pickup. It’s served the useful purpose, but it’s in bad need of repair.’ I think that sums it up. It’s well-intentioned but we need to bring some balance back to the ESA.”

Conversely, wildlife proponents argued that the act has prevented extinction for thousands of species. Several groups not allowed to testify at Wednesday’s invitation-only hearings in Wyoming and Montana balked at being excluded and at the hearings’ official title, “A New War on the West.”

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The North American Sage Grouse Partnership called the meeting title “evidence of an approach to breed conflict.” The Montana-based Western Values Project pointed out that federal oil and gas leases by the Bureau of Land Management on 3 million Montana acres have been underdeveloped by oil and gas contract holders, who have put 25 percent of the leased land to use.

“Montanans should be disappointed in today's hearing and in Congressman Daines,” said Ross Lane, Western Values Project director. “Instead of working to solve problems related to public lands and energy development, Montanans were instead treated to a scripted give-and-take with friendly witnesses. Meanwhile, issues important to Montana's sportsmen, landowners, industry and small businesses go unresolved."

Daines said after the meeting that he did not select the invited witnesses for the Montana hearing. Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said Democrats and Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee had an opportunity to submit names of possible witnesses. Democrats didn’t submit witness names for the Billings hearing and opted not to attend, he said.

The witnesses, all from Montana, included Dave Galt, Montana Petroleum Association executive director; Matt Knox of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation; Channis Whiteman, Crow Tribe member and Cloud Peak Energy equipment operator; Carbon County rancher Bill Cebull; and Kerry White of the conservative group Citizens for Balanced Use.

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