The Trump administration took its final step Monday to weaken the Endangered Species Act, a law that brought the bald eagle, the American alligator, the California condor, the humpback whale and the grizzly bear back from the brink of extinction.
New rules published in the Federal Register will allow the administration to reduce the amount of habitat set aside for wildlife and remove tools that officials use to predict future harm to species as a result of climate change. It would also reveal for the first time in the law’s 45-year history the financial costs of protecting them.
The long-anticipated changes, jointly announced by the departments of Interior and Commerce, were undertaken as part of President Donald Trump’s mandate to scale back government regulations on corporations, including the oil and gas industry, that want to drill on protected land.
“The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. “These changes were subject to a robust, transparent public process, during which we received significant public input that helped us finalize these rules.”
Within hours of Monday’s announcement, the state attorneys general of California and Massachusetts joined a conservation group, Defenders of Wildlife, in declaring the changes illegal and vowing to challenge them in court. “The way this was done was illegal under federal laws, and this is an administration that needs to be held accountable,” said Mauren Healey, attorney general of Massachusetts.
Only Congress can change an act, but rule revisions reflect an administration’s interpretation of a law and how it should be applied. The 1973 Endangered Species Act passed unanimously in the Senate and 355-4 in the House.
‘Nothing biologically positive about the rules’
Jamie Rappaport Clark, who led the Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration, said the people who have spent careers trying to recover and protect the nation’s endangered species find the Trump administration’s move “devastating.”
“There is nothing biologically positive about the rules,” she said.
In May, a U.N. report on world biodiversity found that 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival.
The report, written by seven experts from universities around the world, directly linked the loss of species to human activity and showed how those losses are undermining food and water security, along with human health.
Under the administration’s new rules, it would have been nearly impossible to designate the polar bear as threatened in 2010 due to the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, one of the fastest-warming areas in the world. Nearly 200,000 square miles of barrier islands in Alaska were listed as critical habitat.
Officials relied on climate models to predict how warming would affect polar bear habitat more than 80 years into the future. The new rules called such predictions into doubt and said officials can now only determine impacts in what it described, vaguely, as the “foreseeable future.”
“When you start reaching out to 70 or 80 years” to project climate effects on the planet and wildlife, the amount of certainty about what could happen “starts to degrade significantly,” said Gary Frazer, assistant director for endangered species at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Interior Department.
The new rules would also limit the area of land that can be protected to help species recover and survive. Currently, land that plants and animals occupy is set aside for their protection, in addition to areas that they once occupied or might need in the future.
Now, critical habitat that is not occupied might not be protected, opening it up for oil and gas exploration or other forms of development.
Another rule change stripped away language that said a secretary “shall make a (listing) determination solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial information regarding a species’ status,” regardless of its costs.
By removing that sentence, the administration allowed the Interior and Commerce secretaries to consider the economic impact of a listing. Potential threats to business opportunities and other costs can now be factored by the government and shared with the public.
A Republican senator who has fought to change the act applauded the move. “The Trump administration is taking important steps to make the Endangered Species Act work better for people and wildlife,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “These final rules are a good start.”