The Trump administration on Monday finalized rule changes to the Endangered Species Act, allowing the government to place an economic cost on protecting a species, changes the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says could impact the future of protected wildlife in Central Oregon.
“The impact of the new approach to economic analysis will likely play out with the future species that are proposed to be added or removed from the ESA list,” said Davia Palmeri, conservation policy coordinator for the ODFW.
The Endangered Species Act — signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973 — helped save the California condor, the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and many other plants and animals from extinction.
The current act protects 1,663 species in the United States.
Endangered animals in Oregon listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website include the gray wolf, Canada lynx, Columbian white-tailed deer, Streaked horned lark, northern spotted owl, bull trout and the Oregon silverspot butterfly.
Under President Donald Trump’s changes, any species that comes under threat will go through a different procedure to be listed. The old regulations would have required a consideration of the best available science about the status of the species followed by a decision to add it to the ESA list or not, said Palmeri. Once a species was added to the list an economic impact analysis could be completed.
The new regulations will continue to require consideration of the best available science and would also allow a concurrent impact analysis. But according to ODFW, in a letter it submitted last year commenting on the proposed rules, economic information may be biased by contributions from affected parties and may unintentionally bias decision-makers.
“There is concern that affected industries may have more leverage to encourage the services to not list a species, even if the science may warrant listing,” Palmeri said.
Loggers, miners, ranchers, drillers and others who benefit from resource extraction and land cultivation have for years lobbied to make changes to the Endangered Species Act.
“Minor tweaks to better implement the ESA — not to the law itself or its goals — will help refocus the wildlife agencies on the core function of protecting and recovering listed species based on science, while also being transparent about how ESA decisions impact public land management, communities, and small businesses,” said Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a trade association that supports logging and lumber companies.
Federal laws need to better focus on “21st century challenges” including large-scale wildfires and climate change, said Joseph. “Millions of acres of federal forests — and the wildlife populations they support — are at risk,” he said.
Erik Fernandez, wilderness program manager for Oregon Wild, a nonprofit conservation group, warns that the changes made by the Trump administration will make it easier for timber companies and ranchers to alter ecosystems, including wetlands inhabited by spotted frogs and forest areas that protect streams inhabited by bull trout.
“It’s a pretty broad-brush reinterpretation of the ESA, and they are going to get away with paying back as many favors in the near term as they can,” said Fernandez.
Oregon ranchers contend that the rule changes won’t affect endangered species and that the changes will benefit all sides by reducing costly lawsuits lodged by environmental groups against the government.
“An atmosphere of litigation doesn’t result in the recovery of species,” said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Cooper said past policies went too far to protect habitats, including privately held ranchland, that may no longer be inhabited by a threatened or endangered species.
“This is frustrating for landowners who have not seen a particular species in decades. Why not focus our time and money on places where species are actually located?” said Cooper.
The farm bureau seeks regulations that balance the needs of both endangered species and functioning rural communities, said Cooper, and does not seek to return to an era when converting forested areas into ranchland was a common practice.
“Conversion was done generations ago, but now you can’t convert forested areas,” she said.
The Trump administration said the revisions fit squarely with the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“These changes were subject to a robust, transparent public process, during which we received significant public input that helped us finalize these rules,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, according to the statement.
But environmentalists argue that Trump’s desire to ease the regulatory environment will alter the wilderness experience for Central Oregonians who value their weekends on public lands.
“I don’t like to hike through a clear cut. If you like to hike through clear cuts, the news is good news for you,” said Fernandez. “If you like to go fishing in rivers with no fish, the news is good for you. For those of us who like healthy rivers, healthy populations of animals, this was bad news for us.”
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