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Land Matters: Who Is Susan Combs?

Susan Combs will be back for the golden-cheeked warbler. Combs is a former Texas state comptroller, agriculture commissioner, and state representative who has been nominated by President Trump to run the policy and budget section of the U.S. Department of Interior. The job will put her in charge of all things related to the Endangered Species Act, under which the golden-cheeked warbler (Setophaga chrysoparia) is listed as being at risk of extinction. She “has an aesthetic interest in the golden-cheeked warbler and seeks to conserve the warbler and its habitat within Texas,” according to a petition she signed in June 2015 to have the bird taken off the federal Endangered Species list. But “Combs believes that local and state conservation efforts would be of greater benefit to the warbler and that continued unwarranted regulation under the Endangered Species Act can impede voluntary and local conservation efforts.”

Combs seems fond of these voluntary and local conservation efforts, as opposed to statutory mandates, to protect species, perhaps because they have little if any force. In 2011, she masterminded an effort called the Texas Conservation Plan for the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus). The plan was less about conserving the lizard than keeping it off the Endangered Species list and out of the way of the Texas Oil & Gas Association and the Texas Farm Bureau, among other cosigners of the plan, with “a locally controlled and innovative approach.” Another cosigner was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region office. The problem, according to Gary G. Mowad, a former enforcement official and Texas administrator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was that “this plan was not only not enforceable, but it wasn’t even verifiable.”

That observation arose in the course of a whistleblower protection complaint Mowad filed against the wildlife service in 2014. After two decades as a law enforcement official for the service, Mowad arrived in 2010 to oversee its four Texas offices. Combs was serving as state comptroller. Mowad said he soon discovered that species protection in the state did not run by the book. “Susan Combs had a small group of individuals that she associated with, and that small group was profiting off of decisions that the Fish and Wildlife Service was making,” Mowad testified. This group “was, in my opinion, receiving preferential treatment in…getting their paperwork through, getting decisions from the Fish and Wildlife Service.” The decisions were geared toward benefiting industry by thwarting the listing of imperiled species for protection. Combs is said to have likened these listings to “incoming Scud missiles” that threaten the Texas economy.

How Combs, who today runs her family’s west Texas cattle ranch, wound up shaping endangered species policy as state comptroller is somewhat hazy. The responsibility previously lay with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In 2011, a state representative then in office, Warren Chisum, a Republican from the city of Pampa, introduced an amendment to a must-pass spending bill that transferred oversight of endangered species to the comptroller. The Texas Oil & Gas Association pushed for the transfer; otherwise, no reasons for the move emerged, and no hearings were held, because it was not accomplished with a stand-alone bill. That same year, the conservation plan for the sagebrush lizard came out and effectively averted the listing of the lizard under the Endangered Species Act. The industry-heavy coalition would be in charge of the lizard’s fate.

Mowad testified that upon completion of the Texas Conservation Plan, Benjamin Tuggle, then the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, congratulated the Austin staff in person for their work on the plan and, Mowad added, “[Tuggle] stated, ‘There was not [sic] way we were going to list a lizard in the middle of oil country during an election year.” Mowad says his “jaw just about hit the ground, because that to me showed that that was a pre-decisional determination” and was not based on “the best available science,” as required by the Endangered Species Act. “I am of the opinion this was a political decision,” Mowad said.

Having gotten the lizard where she and her allies wanted it, Combs then aimed at the golden-cheeked warbler, which has been listed as endangered since 1990. The bird winters in Mexico and Central America and nests in summer in 33 central Texas counties where it depends on Ashe juniper for nesting material. The National Audubon Society recently cited an estimate that 1.5 million acres of the warbler’s Texas habitat had disappeared between 1999 and 2011, and that the bird’s population had dropped by a quarter. In 2015, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a “free enterprise” group in Austin, filed a petition with the wildlife service to have the warbler delisted—the petition Combs signed. It claimed there were 19 times the number of extant warblers than were counted when the species was first listed. The service reviewed the petition and rejected it. Then in early June of this year, the foundation sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the warbler.

That suit is pending. On August 3, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved Combs’s nomination, along with four other nominees for the Interior and Energy departments. Combs has no particular biological credentials, but all that stands now between her and the warbler—and about 1,275 other endangered animals and plants in the United States—is an expected yes vote on her nomination in the full Senate upon its return from August recess.

Bradford McKee
Landscape Architecture Magazine

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