WASHINGTON — The Trump administration Monday announced it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, significantly weakening the nation’s bedrock conservation law credited with rescuing the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and the American alligator from extinction.
The changes will make it harder to consider the effects of climate change on wildlife when deciding whether a given species warrants protection. They would most likely shrink critical habitats and, for the first time, would allow economic assessments to be conducted when making determinations.
The rules also make it easier to remove a species from the endangered species list and weaken protections for threatened species, a designation that means they are at risk of becoming endangered.
Overall, the new rules would very likely clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the changes would modernize the Endangered Species Act and increase transparency in its application. “The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” he said in a statement Monday.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement the revisions “fit squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.”
The new rules are expected to appear in the Federal Register this week and will go into effect 30 days after that.
Environmental organizations denounced the changes as a disaster for imperiled wildlife.
David J. Hayes, who served as a deputy interior secretary in the Obama administration and is now executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, said the changes would “straitjacket the scientists to take climate change out of consideration” when determining how to best protect wildlife. “We all know that climate change is now the greatest threat ever to hundreds of species,” Hayes said.
A recent United Nations assessment, some environmentalists noted, has warned that human pressures are poised to drive 1 million species into extinction and that protecting land and biodiversity is critical to keep greenhouse gas emissions in check.
Climate change, a lack of environmental stewardship and mass industrialization have all contributed to the enormous expected global nature loss, the United Nations report said.
Ever since President Richard M. Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973, it has been the main U.S. legislation for protecting fish, plants and wildlife and has acted as a safety net for species on the brink of extinction. The peregrine falcon, the humpback whale, the Tennessee purple coneflower and the Florida manatee all would very likely have disappeared without it, scientists say.
Republicans have long sought to narrow the scope of the law, saying it burdens landowners, hampers industry and hinders economic growth. Bernhardt wrote in an op-ed last summer that the act places an “unnecessary regulatory burden” on companies.
They also make the case that the law is not reasonable because species are rarely removed from the list. Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded.
— (The New York Times)