BOSTON — Environmental groups persuaded lawmakers to sign on to several bills they are pushing this session, including a move to protect the state’s endangered species act, fine farmers for keeping animals in confined cages and another attempt at an expanded bottle bill, adding water and juice bottles to the list of drinks requiring a deposit.
The groups held a lobbying day at the Statehouse yesterday, where they presented more than a dozen bills for lawmakers to review.
A Mass Audubon official said the group’s top priority this session is to see the endangered species act kept intact after it has come under attack from property owners who question the state’s authority to regulate the habitat of endangered species. There are about 432 animals and plants listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern — ranging from the North Atlantic right whale to the eastern box turtle, according to Mass Audubon.
A 1990 state law authorized the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to regulate the “take” of native plants and animals on the list. “Take” means to harm, harass, hunt, shoot, kill, trap, collect, cut, or disrupt the nesting, breeding, feeding or migratory activity of species on the list, including the destruction of habitat, according to Mass Audubon.
The Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program was charged with coming up with regulations to enforce the 1990 law.
Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon, called it a “tough, but fair law” and said it has drawn little attention until recently. Clarke said the group plans to take a three-pronged approach to protecting it: winning any challenges against it in court; defeating efforts to repeal it in the Legislature; and passing reforms that make the law more open and transparent.
Others believe Natural Heritage has overstepped its authority, and puts unfair restrictions on property owners based on the anonymous tips of people claiming they saw endangered species on someone’s property.
Sen. Gale Candaras plans to file a bill forcing Natural Heritage to stop enforcing its regulations and to rewrite them to strike a better balance between all interested parties, including environmentalists, property owners and developers. Candaras said there is no effort to repeal the endangered species act. Rather, lawmakers want to ensure Natural Heritage “explicitly abides” by the law passed by the Legislature.
“The Natural Heritage folks passed regulations that went above and beyond what we intended them to do,” Candaras said.
Efforts to expand the bottle deposit law remain on the top of the environmental agenda.
Backers of the bottle bill said they feel like the chances of it passing “are better than ever” after winning approval in the Senate for the first time last summer. The bill failed to pass the House.
“I think the mood in the Legislature this year is more open to new measures,” Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, said. “There seemed to be last session more of a, you know, the economy’s terrible and we have to sort of stand still and hope nothing falls on our head. But now the conversation, even in the first couple weeks of the year, seems more open to new ideas. So we are feeling optimistic.”
The bill is basically the same as the one filed last session, with a few tweaks, she said.
Approximately 80 percent of the public supports expanding the bottle bill to more types of beverage containers, she said, but supporters have no plans to take the measure directly to voters through a ballot initiative.
“It should be an easy lift for the Legislature,” Domenitz said. “It is not controversial. In other words, we would rather that our elected representatives take what seems like a very simple step given how much public support there is for the measure.”
Other environmental groups looked for lawmakers to sign on to a bill that protects farm animals from being kept in confined cages where they cannot move. Farmers caught keeping hens, pigs or calves in confined cages would be penalized under the bill. House lawmakers approved similar legislation last August, but it failed to make it to final passage.
Animal rights activists said the legislation eliminates the possibility for the “most notorious” factory farming confinement practices that are cruel and harmful to animals. Across the U.S., millions of mother pigs, baby calves and egg-laying hens are immobilized in cages for the duration of their lives, according to officials from the Massachusetts chapter of the Humane Society of the United States.
Rep. Jason Lewis, who sponsored the legislation last session, said last August after it passed in the House that it would prevent large-scale factory farms from moving into Massachusetts, thus protecting smaller family farms that don’t typically use these farming techniques.