Mike Johnson’s Election Is Bad News for Imperiled Plants and Animals

The lawmaker has questioned climate science and repeatedly sought to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

A black-footed ferret looks out of the entrance to a prairie dog tunnel

The black-footed ferret has been listed as an endangered species in the United States since the 1960s.David Zalubowski/AP

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After weeks of dithering, on Wednesday, House Republicans settled on Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as the chamber’s next speaker. As you’ve probably heard by now, Johnson, aka “MAGA Mike,” has been a spirited supporter of former President Donald Trump; infamously urged the Supreme Court to overturn President Joe Biden’s election victory in 2020; and celebrated the overturning of Roe v. Wade

But Johnson’s taste for upending legal precedent doesn’t stop with elections and abortion. He’s also repeatedly sought to undermine one of the country’s most popular environmental laws: the Endangered Species Act. In 2018, for instance, Johnson joined House Republicans in launching a series of bills to cut back the decades-old law. As I wrote at the time:

[I]n the House, lawmakers introduced a package of nine bills aimed at weakening the Endangered Species Act last week. The package will “modernize” the act, according to Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, who oversaw the release of the package. Its goal, he added, is to “balance the interests of all parties involved in and affected by species and habitat listings—including species themselves, private citizens, industry, local governments, public infrastructure projects, nonprofit organizations and other entities.” 

In some respects, the bills were nothing new; Republicans have been trying to roll back the Endangered Species Act in the name of economic growth for decades. But during the Trump era, as I wrote, Republicans “carried on the task of environmental deregulation with renewed vigor.” The New York Times characterized the attempt to weaken the law in 2018 as “on a scale not seen in decades.”

As part of this 2018 package, Johnson introduced the “WHOLE Act,” a bill that he said would update the “antiquated” ESA by “removing unnecessary burdens on the agriculture community, while continuing to protect wildlife and their habitats.” In short, the bill would have made it easier for land developers to build on or near areas designated as “critical habitat” under the ESA. (The House passed a similar amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill.)

Environmentalists called the measure an “attack” on the law, arguing that it would have allowed federal agencies more leeway in potentially harming endangered species. The bill never made it into law, but that hasn’t seemed to discourage Johnson. In the years since, he’s introduced at least two other bills that would weaken ESA protections, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, and one bill making it easier for Customs and Border Protection to build roads and other infrastructure in wilderness areas along the border.

“In general, Rep. Johnson has been very comfortable in the extreme, far-right wing of the House GOP that has constantly pushed to gut the Endangered Species Act and our other bedrock environmental laws,” Brett Hartl, the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told me in an email. “Having him as speaker does not bode well for this nation’s imperiled wildlife as well as efforts to tackle the climate crisis and address other environmental challenges.” When I reached Defenders of Wildlife for comment, Robert Dewey, the group’s vice president of government relations, responded via email, “Given Speaker Mike Johnson’s track record on the environment and anti-climate stance, we can only assume that conserving wildlife is not high on his list of priorities.”

Indeed, on environmental issues broadly, Johnson’s record doesn’t inspire much hope. He’s been granted a lifetime score of an abysmal 2 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, and has questioned the science of climate change: “The climate is changing, but the question is, is it being caused by natural cycles over the span of the Earth’s history? Or is it changing because we drive SUVs? I don’t believe in the latter,” he said in 2017, E&E News reports. “I don’t think that’s the primary driver.” (While it’s true the Earth has warmed and cooled over time, the current rise in temperatures is unprecedented, science shows, and clearly linked to human activity.)

“It should concern us all that someone with such extreme views and so beholden to the fossil fuel industry has such power and influence during a time when bold action is more critical than ever,” the Sierra Club said in a statement, in response to Johnson’s election. Since his congressional career began in 2015, Johnson has reportedly received more than $300,000 from oil and gas interests—more than any other sector.

So, with Johnson’s victory, turmoil within the Republican Party over selecting a speaker may have come to an end. But for America’s wildlife, the chaos is far from over. 

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