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Whales and Plovers Safe for Now

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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Piping plovers, marbled salamanders and northern right whales all got a reprieve last week, when the state Legislature ended its session without acting on a bill that would have dramatically overhauled the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.

Those plovers and salamanders and whales—along with 429 other plant and animal species listed under MESA—are protected through the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which is charged with reviewing development projects to make sure they won’t harm protected species or their habitats. But in recent years, NHESP itself has been endangered by a proposed bill that would have drastically reduced its powers.

The “Pepin Bill” gets its name from Bill Pepin, a WWLP-Channel 22 executive who’s been engaged in a years-long battle with the state over his plan to build a retirement home on property in Hampden that’s been mapped as habitat for the Eastern box turtle. Pepin has called the state program a “rogue” agency that violates the rights of property owners and impedes development. And he’s found many sympathetic ears among western Mass. legislators, who’ve been happy to advance his cause. (See “Endangering Species,” July 26, 2012)

The bill was opposed staunchly by dozens of environmental and sportsmen’s groups, who argued that it would gut wildlife protections by imposing impossible-to-meet requirements on the underfunded agency. “These are very important programs that have protected habitats and been absolutely successful,” Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, told the Advocate earlier this summer. It would be a mistake, he said, “to throw out decades’ worth of work simply because a few people have a problem with how they have to apply for permits.”

In the end, the bill failed to come to a vote, despite intense lobbying from Pepin and his allies in the waning days of the session. Instead, in what conservation groups see as a hopeful sign, House leadership showed support for a compromise bill that would have strengthened NHESP’s position. Ultimately, that bill didn’t come to a vote, either—an indication, Jennifer Ryan, legislative director for Mass Audubon, wrote in a message to supporters, that “enough legislators feel that there are unresolved questions around how MESA is implemented” to put the brakes on moving any bill forward this session.

Ryan anticipates that the Legislature will take up the matter when it returns for a new session in January—buying environmental advocates some more time to make their case for the importance of protecting the program.

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