The Trump Administration has unveiled a plan to revise regulations that implement portions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), which conservationists say would cripple the law adopted in 1973 to protect imperiled species and critical habitat.
A proposal announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) last week would, for the first time ever, allow economic impacts to be considered when determining how to protect plant and animal species under the ESA.
“If the proposal is finalized, species that remain on the endangered list would still see their habitats protected, but it would become more difficult to list a new species for protection and easier to remove those now on the list,” Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman report for the New York Times.
Another key provision of the ESA that the proposal seeks to roll back is one that automatically extends the same level of protections to species whether they’re listed as endangered or threatened. “If the proposal is approved, likely by year’s end, protections for threatened plants and animals would be made on a case-by-case basis,” the Washington Post’s Darryl Fears reports.
Further components of the proposal would make it easier to delist an endangered species, impose “a non-exhaustive list of circumstances” in which the designation of critical habitat can be rejected because it “would not be prudent,” and change the parameters under which federal agencies are required to consult with the USFWS and NOAA Fisheries before taking any action that might impact a listed species or cause the “destruction or adverse modification” of habitat. The proposal would also alter how “foreseeable future” is interpreted in the ESA’s definition of a threatened species as “one that is likely to become in danger of extinction within the ‘foreseeable future.’”
“We work to ensure effective conservation measures to recover our most imperiled species,” Chris Oliver, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, said in a statement. “The changes being proposed today are designed to bring additional clarity and consistency to the implementation of the act across our agencies, and we look forward to additional feedback from the public as part of this process.”
The proposed rules will be published in the federal register on July 25 together with information on how the public can submit written comments, which must be submitted within 60 days of publication and will be posted on www.regulations.gov.
The proposal is the latest salvo in a much broader attack on the ESA that has included dozens of pieces of proposed legislation, amendments, and policies. “The Endangered Species Act, which for 45 years has safeguarded fragile wildlife while blocking ranching, logging and oil drilling on protected habitats, is coming under attack from lawmakers, the White House and industry on a scale not seen in decades, driven partly by fears that the Republicans will lose ground in November’s midterm elections,” Davenport and Friedman write in the NYT.
The ESA is credited with having been instrumental in the recovery of bald eagles, gray whales, grizzly bears, and a number of other species.
Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that the proposed rule changes were a gift to industries that have long sought to undermine the ESA.
“The Trump administration doesn’t seem to know any other way to handle the environment than as an obstacle to industry profits,” Grijalva said in a statement. “If a single company can make a single dollar from the destruction or displacement of an endangered species, it’s full speed ahead. The public doesn’t demand this; this is part of the endless special favors the White House and Department of the Interior are willing to do for their industry friends.”
Environmentalists also decried the proposed rule changes, which had been expected for months, as a boon for industry groups and landowners at the expense of the environment and wildlife.
“It essentially turns every listing of a species into a negotiation,” Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity told the AP. “They could decide that building in a species’ habitat or logging in trees where birds nest doesn’t constitute harm.”
Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that 99 percent of the species listed under the ESA have been saved from extinction.
“The very agencies that are charged with saving endangered species are proposing to weaken the bedrock protections of the Endangered Species Act,” Riley said in a statement. “These proposed rules are a short-sighted attempt to appease developers and polluters at the expense of imperiled species.”