At a time when species face an unprecedented threat from human activities, the U.S. Trump administration is rolling back key protections for those most at risk of extinction.
On Tuesday, the administration made official a proposal to weaken the U.S. Endangered Species Act that’s been in the works for a year. The landmark conservation law is the reason bald eagles bounced back from the brink, and it continues to provide protections for more than 1600 species of animals and plants.
But the Trump administration changes will weaken those protections and make it harder to factor climate change into deciding whether to list species while allowing federal agencies to consider the potential economic impacts of listing species. The rule change fits with the Trump administration ethos of wringing the last few bucks out of a dying planet.
Chief among the changes are removing the “blanket section 4(d) rule.” There are two types of listing under the Endangered Species Act: endangered and threatened. The latter is a less acute designation than endangered, but the 4(d) rule allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend some of the same protections to threatened species that it does to endangered ones since the whole point of the act is keep species from becoming endangered or even worse, going extinct.
The Trump administration is wiping that rule off the books, providing a boon for extractive industries, developers, and industrial farms that have operations impacting threatened species. This change is likely to cause more animal species to end up endangered.
Beyond that change, the administration has also included more specific language about what “foreseeable future” in the act means. Specifically, the new rules call the foreseeable future “only so far into the future as the Services can reasonably determine” what a threat to a species is. This may seem insignificant, but it has dire implications.
A recent U.S. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that up to a million species face extinction globally as a result of human activities, including the repercussions of climate change. Just how bad climate change will get is largely based on how much carbon pollution humans put in the atmosphere in the coming decades. That means the impacts are somewhat fluid, in the sense that sea levels could rise two feet or three feet.
The former flexibility of the Endangered Species Act’s “foreseeable future” language allowed regulators to consider a range of scenarios and timeframes. The new language could tie the hands of regulators, making it harder to list species — or alternatively, allow regulators to ignore the future impacts of climate change, one of those long-term things that could have vast repercussions for plants and animals.
The final roadblock the administration threw in the way of getting species listed is the consideration of the economic impact — not the scientific evidence — of listing a species as endangered or threatened.
That means, for example, a species like the northern spotted owl — which was listed as threatened in 1990 due to habitat loss in the Pacific Northwest and competition from the invasive barred owl — would likely have a tougher time getting listed under the new rules.
The timber industry played a huge role in depleting the spotted owl population — thus it getting listed — by chopping down the old-growth forests where the owl made its home. Once the owl became listed, logging was temporarily halted in old-growth forests sparking a multi-decade fight between the industry and the U.S. federal government.
Including economics in listing considerations will almost certainly be a huge boost to the timber and other industries, especially when the president appoints industry-friendly leaders at the agencies in charge of implementing the act. Which is, of course, exactly what Trump has done with David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, currently serving as head of the Department of the Interior.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said on a call with reporters that the “notion of economics” has been “completely off-limits” until today’s rule changes. “It’s an important one because as decisions are being made of whether or not to protect a species, the issue has always been clear it’s [based on] the best available science,” she said.
Like other Trump environmental rule changes and rollbacks, this one will almost certainly face a barrage of legal challenges from environmental groups and state attorneys general. But beyond the legal issues, if this all sounds like a complete perversion of the Endangered Species Act, well, it is.
Additionally, California and Massachusetts state attorneys general are teaming up to sue the Trump administration over its Endangered Species Act updates. “This administration is trying to change the law by breaking the law, and that’s not going to stand,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said on a call with reporters.
Becerra and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced their plans to sue the administration within hours of the new rule announcement. They’re among a group of top lawyers from 10 U.S. states who voiced their displeasure when the Trump administration laid out its proposed amendments to the act last year. Now that they’re in the books, Becerra and Healey are ready to take the next steps to get them overturned in court and others could join the fight, too.