Fur flies with overhaul of Endangered Species Act
Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, supports the Endangered Species Act — he is the only sitting lawmaker left who voted for it in 1973 — but says the law aimed at saving wildlife and plants from extinction has since become a “bureaucratic nightmare.”
Only 3% of the 1,661 species listed as endangered or threatened since 1973 have been recovered. Meanwhile, critics say the act has been weaponized to block economic development, cordon off lands and halt forest management while cultivating a tangled thicket of federal regulations.
On Monday, the Trump administration moved to “bring the Act into the 21st century” by finalizing sweeping revisions that maintain the “best available science” standard while placing limits on the designation of critical habitat, streamlining the listings process and making clear the costs of such designations.
“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal — recovery of our rarest species,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement. “The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation. An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”
Democrats and environmental groups were quick to decry the overhaul and accused the Interior Department of placing vulnerable species at risk. Meanwhile, Western Republicans, ranchers, farmers, drillers and builders said the revisions to the outdated law are long overdue.
“With these new rules, the Department of the Interior is helping to rein in the ESA and bring it closer to its congressional intent,” Mr. Young said.
Two Democratic attorneys general, Xavier Becerra of California and Maura Healey of Massachusetts, vowed to take legal action to stop the revisions. They insisted the changes would “put these endangered species and their habitats at risk of extinction.”
“As we face the unprecedented threat of a climate emergency, now is the time to strengthen our planet’s biodiversity, not to destroy it,” Mr. Becerra said.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which forced a 2011 legal settlement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to make listing decisions on 757 species applications, called the revisions “a massive attack on imperiled wildlife.”
“These changes crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections for America’s most vulnerable wildlife,” said Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director. “For animals like wolverines and monarch butterflies, this could be the beginning of the end. We’ll fight the Trump administration in court to block this rewrite.”
Environmentalists also took issue with the final rule’s emphasis on providing the public with transparency on the cost of adding a listing to the Endangered Species Act. They said such disclosures could result in political pressure on agencies to avoid listings.
In the final rule, the agencies in charge of the revisions — the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service — said such designations “must be made solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”
“However, the Act does not prohibit the Services from compiling economic information or presenting that information to the public, as long as such information does not influence the listing determination,” the rule said.
The act has proved costly to areas such as the Pacific Northwest, where a 1990 listing decision on the northern spotted owl has decimated the timber industry. Some Westerners blame recent wildfires on Endangered Species Act-based challenges to tree-thinning and clearing projects.
“Oregonians have seen how the listing of the spotted owl has forced many federal forests in Oregon into endless litigation by special interest groups that hold up forest management projects and leave communities at risk of catastrophic wildfires that choke our air with smoke and destroy the very wildlife habitat the ESA aims to protect,” said Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican.
Gary Frazer, assistant director at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that “nothing here in my view is a radical change for how we have been consulting and listing species for the last decade or so.”
“We also are clear that we’re continuing to make listing determinations as directed by statute solely on the basis of the best available scientific information and without consideration for the economic impacts,” Mr. Frazer said on a press call.
Even so, Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, wasn’t buying it.
“If David Bernhardt really believes it will not harm listings, then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell him,” Mr. Hartl said.
The bald eagle, peregrine falcon and manatee are among the Endangered Species Act’s success stories. While only a small percentage have been declared recovered, environmental groups describe the act as a success because 99% of species listed have not gone extinct.
Others argue that the endless litigation surrounding the Endangered Species Act as advocacy groups seek to “sue and settle” has diverted resources that could be used for species recovery. In addition, critics say, the act has interrupted state and local efforts to protect wildlife.
The final rule raised the bar on which areas are considered critical habitat. It imposes a higher standard on areas not currently occupied by a species and removes a blanket rule treating species listed as threatened by the same standard as those listed as endangered.
Climate change would be considered as a factor in listings on a case-by-case basis, though the agencies rejected requests to place a definitive value on what constitutes the “foreseeable future.”
“The impacts of this action are bad enough on their own, but the decision also signals continued willful ignorance from the Trump administration about the looming impacts climate change will have on the American landscape,” said Rebecca Riley of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The reaction on Capitol Hill is divided along party lines.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, accused President Trump of “bulldozing the most important tool we have to protect endangered species,” while the panel’s ranking Republican, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, said the changes would help right the wrongs of the past.
“Under the previous administration, the Endangered Species Act strayed woefully far from its original intent,” Mr. Bishop said. “The act was morphed into a political weapon instead of a tool to protect wildlife. Secretary Bernhardt’s dogged dedication to righting this wrong is again made apparent today.”
Several Republicans, including Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said they hoped to give the administrative changes the force of law with legislation to update the Endangered Species Act.
“These final rules are a good start, but the administration is limited by an existing law that needs to be updated,” Mr. Barrasso said. “I am working in the Senate to strengthen the law so it can meet its full conservation potential.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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