“God Squad” Invoked Against Endangered California Fish in House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing

Lawmakers invoke God Squad against imperiled Calif. fish
Emily Yehle, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said yesterday that it was “reasonable” for the administration to consider removing federal protections for the delta smelt in the face of California’s drought.
The delta smelt — a tiny fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — is on the verge of extinction, leading federal officials to restrict pumping water out of its habitat.
But restrictions have made the fish a constant target of California lawmakers who say they prevent much-needed water from going to farms and residents.
At a hearing yesterday, Ashe told House appropriators that his agency hasn’t been able to help the smelt recover but also couldn’t “turn a blind eye to a species that is about to go extinct.”
However, another entity can force FWS to do just that: the “God Squad” or, more officially, the Endangered Species Committee.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, brought up the possibility of convening the committee yesterday, questioning Ashe on whether it was a reasonable course of action.
“I do think the Endangered Species Committee — none of us likes to think about being at this place, but it’s in the law for a reason,” Ashe responded.
“It’s a reasonable question for you to ask, have we arrived at a place where we should convene the Endangered Species Committee,” Ashe said. “It’s the only forum to balance benefits to species against economic and other forces.”
The God Squad is tucked in a little-used provision of the Endangered Species Act, allowing the heads of several federal agencies to decide to lift ESA protections.
It comprises the Agriculture Department, U.S. EPA, the Interior Department, the Army, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Council of Economic Advisers.
Ashe emphasized that only the Bureau of Reclamation and the California governor can convene the God Squad in the case of the delta smelt. He also fell short of endorsing the move, though he did express frustration that FWS was “not helping the delta smelt.”
Since FWS feels its hands are tied, Calvert said, it’s time to consider the God Squad.
“El Niño has proven that the problem is not quantity of water, but the regulation of water,” Calvert said in his opening statement. “And so much of the regulation is dictated by the Fish and Wildlife Service under the mandates of the Endangered Species Act, with wide latitude afforded scientific uncertainty, and a save-at-any-cost policy that borders on dogma. Enough is enough.”

You can watch the key exchange beginning at 1:30:32 here: http://appropriations.house.gov/calendararchive/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=394436.