Endangered Species History Precedes Cabinet Contender

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By Tiffany Stecker

A contender for Trump administration posts carries a reputation on endangered species and pesticide issues in her home state of Texas—a history that has earned praise from industry leaders and pans from environmentalists, who say the free-market approach to conservation puts rare species at risk.

Susan Combs, who served both as Texas agricultural commissioner and state comptroller under Republican Govs. George W. Bush and Rick Perry, has been under consideration for agriculture secretary under President-elect Donald Trump.

Recent media reports indicate that former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R ) is the front-runner for that position, and Trump has yet to announce his decision. Combs could still be considered for other posts at USDA or elsewhere in the executive branch, sources say.

Combs, who met with Trump on Dec. 30 at his Mar-al-Lago estate in Florida, played a key role in bringing endangered species issues under the authority of the state comptroller’s office.

In 2011, the Texas legislature approved the transfer of authority from the state Parks and Wildlife Department to the comptroller’s office—an agency better known for regulating taxes and commerce than for protecting wildlife.

As head of the agency, Combs led the charge to develop the Texas Conservation Plan, an effort to avoid listing the dunes sagebrush lizard under the Endangered Species Act—a move that would have required landowners to take on measures to protect habitat for the sand-dwelling reptile.

The plan focused heavily on voluntary conservation measures taken on by oil and gas drillers and other private landowners in the Permian basin, relying on a mechanism in which landowners commit to maintaining habitat in exchange for protection from land-use restrictions if a species is ever listed.

“The state of Texas has a vested interest in oil and gas revenue,” Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau told Bloomberg BNA. Combs’s goal “was to make sure that the oil and gas industry could operate while making sure that these species were protected and did have a viable plan.”Farmers, ranchers and other landowners also participated to avoid carrying a heavy burden of protecting species, said Hall.

As a result of Texas’s implementation of the plan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife declined to list the species in 2012, a decision that was twice upheld in federal court against challenges from environmental groups (Defenders of Wildlife, et al v. Sally Jewell, et al, D.C. Court of Appeals, 14-05284, (11/19/2014)).

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has worked to soften the burden of endangered species conservation on farmers and ranchers. Outgoing Secretary Tom Vilsack’s USDA played a big role in funding conservation practices to protect imperiled species like the greater sage grouse, another animal that avoided an Endangered Species Act listing in 2015.

Red Flags

Combs touted the plan as a balanced strategy for weighing environmental protection with business interests.

“This effort can provide a template for successful challenges to excessive regulation while ensuring that we protect what needs to be protected,” she wrote in a Feb. 28, 2013, op-ed in The Washington Times .

Environmentalists disagreed. The nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, which sued the Fish and Wildlife Service for not listing the dunes sagebrush lizard under the Endangered Species Act, issued a paper that found that the comptroller’s office was not reporting oil industry damages to habitat for the lizard, and was also shielding certain details of the plan from public records.

“Her history of managing the comptroller’s office definitely raises red flags for us as to how she might deal with transparency issues,” Ya-Wei Li, vice president of endangered species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, told Bloomberg BNA.

Gary Mowad, who was the Fish and Wildlife Service’s top administrator in Texas while Combs was comptroller, described her as an “astute politician” who “knew how to coordinate with the Fish and Wildlife Service” to get things done, even if it did not provide the federal agency all of the information on industry’s effects on the ground.

“We were on opposite ends of that issue, but I have to give credit where credit’s due,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Neither Combs nor the Trump transition team immediately responded to Bloomberg BNA e-mails requesting comment.

Following two terms as a state representative, Combs served as the state’s agricultural commissioner from 1998 to 2007, where she is best known for implementing a series of policies to cut fat and sugar from public school meals. She then moved to the role of state comptroller, where she served under Perry—Trump’s pick to head the Department of Energy—until January 2015.

After she left the comptroller’s office, Combs remained active in endangered species issues, leading a petition to Fish and Wildlife Service for removing the golden-cheeked warbler, a migratory songbird, from the Endangered Species Act list.

Pesticides

Combs also has a history of battling the Environmental Protection Agency on pesticides. In April 1999, her deputy at the Texas Department of Agriculture, Donnie Dippel, testified in her place at a congressional hearing to criticize the EPA’s denial of an emergency exemption for the state of Texas to use the insecticide carbofuran for the state’s cotton growers.

Dippel argued that the justification for withholding the treatment for aphids on cotton was based on groundwater contamination data from New York—information that had no relevance for Lone State cotton farmers.

“EPA must use data from state sources instead of seeking a worst-case scenario in another state,” Dippel told a House Agriculture subcommittee, adding that the state’s agriculture department disagreed with the agency’s implementation of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act. The law set additional restrictions around the approval of pesticides.

The EPA eventually approved the exemption a year later, but included a provision that would have required growers to first document that other aphid-killers were ineffective. In 2001, the agency dropped that requirement, but only after a year of battling Combs’ staff.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker at tstecker@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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