Trump Administration Overhauls How the Endangered Species Act Is Enforced

Critics say that the new rules limit much-needed protections for at-risk wildlife

Photo by Daniel Goodrich/Newsday RM via Getty Images

The Trump administration announced on Monday that it will implement several changes to the Endangered Species Act—changes that will, according to conservation advocates, weaken legislation that has played a pivotal role in protecting the nation’s at-risk wildlife.

Signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) currently protects 1,663 animal and plant species, 388 of which are considered threatened and 1,275 are endangered. The law has been credited with helping bring multiple species back from the brink of extinction, among them the bald eagle, the humpback whale, the California Condor and the American alligator. But as Reuters notes, “the law has long been a source of frustration for drillers, miners and other industries because new listings can put vast swathes of land off limits to development.”

Republicans have long pushed for an overhaul of the law. And the new rules, which are expected to go into effect next month, “appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live,” according to Lisa Friedman of the New York Times.

One of the key changes pertains to threatened species, which are one classification below endangered species but used to automatically receive the same protections. Now, protections for threatened plants and animals will be made on a case-by-case basis, slowing down the process and likely reducing overall protections for species that are ultimately added to the list, as Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, tells Nature’s Jonathan Lambert.

The new rules also impose limitations on how threats are assessed. Officials used to take into account factors that could harm species in the “foreseeable future,” but now lawmakers have more discretion in deciding what “foreseeable future” should mean. So they may choose to disregard climate factors—like rising sea levels and extreme heat—that will likely impact species several decades from now.

Additionally, the revisions curtail an important function of the ESA: protecting lands that at-risk species need to survive. One new stipulation requires regulators to assess lands that are currently occupied by threatened or endangered species before looking at unoccupied areas. But as Madeleine Gregory of Vice explains, many species are at risk precisely because they have been forced into a small fraction of their original habitat, and protecting more land around them can help species recover.

Yet another change to the ESA saw the removal of language stipulating that only scientific evidence should be considered when deciding whether a species should be protected, essentially allowing reviewers to take economic loss into consideration as well. Gary Frazer, the assistant director for endangered species with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, stressed in a press conference that listing decisions will continue to be based on science. But allowing economic analyses to factor into the process, even just for “informational purposes,” is a “giant concession to industries that have long complained about having to make excessive accommodations because of the law,” the Los Angeles Times writes in an op-ed.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that the new revisions “fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.” But critics maintain that regulations will in fact hamper conservation efforts at a time of biodiversity crisis. In May, the United Nations released an alarming report stating that one million species are at risk of extinction, due to factors like climate change, pollution, deforestation, overfishing and poaching. Advocates say that to ensure the long-term sustainability of the planet’s ecosystems, 30 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 30 percent of the world’s oceans will need to be effectively managed by 2030.

"Instead of looking for solutions to the global extinction crisis that threatens up to one million plant and animal species, this administration has decided to place arbitrary and unlawful restrictions on the very federal regulators that Congress has tasked with protecting them," David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law and a former interior deputy secretary under the Obama and Clinton administrations, tells the Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press.

Conservationists and multiple state attorney generals have promised to sue the administration over the revisions, arguing that they are illegal because they are not rooted in scientific evidence, according to NPR’s Nathan Rott.

"This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it's a gift to industry, and it's illegal,” Drew Caputo, a vice president of litigation for the advocacy group Earthjustice tells the AP. “We'll see the Trump administration in court about it.”

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