So how can one get exempted from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act? This CRS report by M. Lynne Corn, Betsy A. Cody and Alexandra M. Wyatt, Endangered Species Act (ESA): The Exemption Process, describes the process.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is designed to protect species from extinction, but it includes an exemption process for those unusual cases where the public benefit from an action is determined to outweigh the harm to the species. This process was created by a 1978 amendment to the ESA, but it is rarely used. This report will discuss the exemption process for an agency action, with examples from past controversies, and its potential for application to actions that may affect current controversies, such as water supply.
The ESA mandates listing and protecting species that are endangered or threatened with extinction. Listing a species limits activities that could affect that species and provides penalties for taking individuals of that species. The ESA also requires federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service (together, the Services) to determine whether a federal action may jeopardize the continued existence of a species or harm its critical habitat. The consultation process may lead to an opinion by one of the Services that the action will jeopardize listed species or harm their critical habitats unless certain reasonable and prudent alternatives are included in the action.
Rarely, the federal action agency may hold that those alternatives are inconsistent with the agency action. In other extremely rare cases, the Services may find that no alternatives are available that would allow the project to proceed and still prevent jeopardy. In either case, the following are the categories of potential applicants that can apply for an exemption for a federal action despite its effects on listed species or their critical habitat:
the federal action agency interested in proceeding with the action,
an applicant for a federal license or permit whose application was denied primarily because of the prohibitions of ESA requiring that federal agency actions avoid jeopardy to threatened or endangered species or harm to their critical habitats, or
the governor of the state where the action was to have occurred.
An exemption application is considered by a specially convened committee which may exempt the federal agency’s action from the prohibitions of the ESA. The exemption process allows major economic factors to be judged to outweigh the ESA’s mandate to recover a species when the federal action is found to be in the public interest and is nationally or regionally significant.
The exemption process has been invoked with a dam on the Tellico River (TN), a water project in the Platt River (WY and NE), and timber sales (OR). In three other instances, the process was begun but was aborted before a decision was reached. In addition, there has been interest over the years in invoking the process in light of controversies over management of federal and state water resource projects in California, although no application has ever been filed. When a project achieves such levels of controversy, Congress is sometimes asked to intervene in the outcome, as it did in the case of the Tellico Dam and an endangered fish in the late 1970s.
"Eventually we realize that life isn’t primarily about the container, but the contents." - Richard Rohr