Susan Combs, a longtime Texas politician and cattle rancher who once referred to endangered species listings as “incoming Scud missiles,” has quietly been put in charge of our nation’s parks and wildlife, including enforcing the Endangered Species Act. Let’s learn more!
Combs was nominated months ago to become assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget at the Interior Department. But as the Washington Post reported last week, that nomination has been hamstrung by bipartisan opposition. Most recently, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) vowed to continue holding it up her nomination until Zinke jettisons his wildly unpopular offshore drilling plan. Instead, Zinke has used his authority to declare her acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, a move first reported by Austin American-Statesman on March 28.
The Interior Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment on why Combs was chosen for this particular role. But we do know that in her new role, Combs will (at least temporarily) be responsible both for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Parks Service, giving her power to direct policy on everything from wildlife conservation to land and resource management in parks. She’ll also be responsible for enforcing countless laws and regulations, including the Endangered Species Act.
There’s just one small problem: Combs has spent her career fighting Endangered Species Act listings and wildlife protections—often, at the behest of private landowners and industry groups. Which makes her like a lot of other Trump administration officials.
“From all accounts, she is a determined and forceful critic of the Endangered Species Act,” Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife and former associate director of FWS under Obama, told Earther. “It’s remarkably dangerous to put her as the acting assistant secretary in the DOI.”
Combs is perhaps best known for fighting wildlife protections when she served as Texas state comptroller from 2007 to 2014. During that time she, as Dreher put it, “seized control of the Endangered Species Act in a kind of power play with the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
As former FWS deputy chief of law enforcement Gary Mowad noted in an interview with Earther, having the state’s chief financial officer sign off on endangered species listings is a set-up that can charitably be described as unique. An uncharitable read is that she wanted to subvert the purpose of the act to benefit industry.
“A lot of folks would equate that to the fox watching the henhouse,” Mowad, who ran Fish and Wildlife’s Texas branch from 2010 to 2013, said.
According to a lengthy 2015 investigation by the Austin-American Statesman, Combs was unwavering in her opposition to state wildlife receiving federal protection while comptroller, finding “fault with nearly every listing proposal from Washington.”
This included a successful bid to keep the dune sagebrush lizard off the endangered species list, which instead received a voluntary, oil and gas industry-approved conservation plan that has since been deemed “fatally flawed,”and a protracted campaign to de-list the golden-cheeked warbler, which Combs continued to finance with leftover campaign money after getting out of state politics. (The bird remains listed for now.) Combs also helped secure $10 million in state funding for studies purporting to inform endangered species listings, but which critics, including many state biologists, claimed were designed to benefit industry.
“Susan has a record of funding research from institutions that will give her the answers on where she wants to go on an issue,” Mowad said.
Mowad fully expects Combs to take a “very conservative” and “ultra-business friendly” approach to the Endangered Species Act in her new role. But he’s not totally upset about that, telling Earther that in his view, FWS has become “too much of an advocate” in recent years, frequently using the act to require conservation action that “isn’t necessary.”
“The pendulum is swinging back toward the middle,” he said. “If it just gets somewhere toward the middle, I’m okay with that. If she takes it too far, I’ll be concerned.”
But while Mowad is in wait and see mode, others are already concerned.
“It’s a lot like putting Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA,” Dreher said.
Stephanie Kurose, endangered species policy expert at the Center for Biological Diversity, put it even more plainly. “It’s just gonna be a disaster,” she told Earther.
Kurose sees the move as part of a broader Republican-led effort to roll back endangered species protections. New endangered species listings were way down in 2017, with FWS taking heat from environmentalists for failing to list everything from the white-tailed prairie dog to the Pacific Walrus. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, House Republicans introduced legislation purportedly aimed at “modernizing” the endangered species act, but which critics say makes it easier to avoid protections in the name of development.
While Zinke has appointed Combs in an acting role, she hasn’t yet been formally nominated to fill it permanently. Dreher suspects that if and when she is, “it would draw tremendous fire on the Hill.” At the same time, he suspects any controversial moves she makes as acting administrator will face a different set of challenges.
“If she signs off on and authorizes damaging activities and rules, people will challenge [them] not just on their merits, but for having no legal authority to act,” Dreher said. “It’s part of the chaos of Washington right now.”