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A fierce opponent of the Endangered Species Act is picked to oversee Interior's wildlife policy

  • Author: Darryl Fears, The Washington Post
  • Updated: April 4
  • Published April 4

Susan Combs leaves a meeting with then President-elect Donald Trump on Dec. 30, 2016, at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. (Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti)

WASHINGTON - Susan Combs, a former Texas state official who compared proposed endangered species listings to "incoming Scud missiles" and continued to fight the Endangered Species Act after she left government, now has a role in overseeing federal wildlife policy.

Combs was selected by Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke as acting secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. Zinke made the move after his bid to make her an assistant secretary for policy, management and budget stalled in the Senate. The nomination has been on hold since July because of opposition from Republicans and Democrats for various reasons.

At first, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was preoccupied with a pileup of Environmental Protection Agency nominees who required confirmation. Later, the committee's chairman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, held up hearings for Combs because of a dispute during President Trump's attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. When that ended, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., held up the nomination over concerns about the administration's bid to redraw national monument boundaries.

Seemingly in retaliation, Zinke made the new appointment, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman last week.

"Of course we would rather have Susan Combs confirmed and in her intended position as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget," Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

"Until then, she will serve in an acting capacity," Swift said. She described Combs as "highly qualified" and said Interior officials "are more than confident that she will be an effective manager at Fish and Wildlife and Parks while she patiently awaits her Senate confirmation."

Zinke has teamed with lawmakers in the House in a bid to strip the Endangered Species Act of much of its power. Several bills would remove the act's provisions to save species from extinction regardless of the economic impact, rely on peer-reviewed scientific data and reward conservation organizations that successfully sue to protect animals by paying their court costs.

Combs is a rancher and former Texas comptroller with strong ties to the oil industry whose politics align with efforts to weaken the law. As comptroller, she fought the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly over its attempts to enforce the Endangered Species Act in the state. In a 2015 report, the Austin American-Statesman showed how Combs worked to remove endangered protections for a native state songbird, the golden-cheeked warbler, claiming that its listing hurt military readiness.

Following a successful bid to keep a tiny lizard off the endangered list in 2012, Combs hailed the decision as a victory for state jobs and the national energy economy.

A year later, in an appearance before the legislature, Combs made the "incoming Scud missiles" remark, the newspaper reported. It uncovered records showing that she disagreed with "nearly every listing proposal from Washington," questioning the science, estimates of their economic impact and the amount of resident input.

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