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How the Trump administration wants to weaken the Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act is incredibly popular. The administration and Congressional Republicans want to limit it anyway. 

“Trump’s proposing what?!”
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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The Trump administration is proposing some sweeping changes to how the Endangered Species Act is enforced. Last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries office jointly announced several specific changes that make species protections more lenient.

The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, is the key piece of US legislation protecting wildlife. Since its passage in 1973, it’s been credited with helping the rebound of the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, the humpback whale, and many other species living throughout the US and in its waterways.

The act is generally uncontroversial among the public: About 83 percent of Americans (including a large majority of conservatives) support it, according to an Ohio State University poll. Yet the strict regulations put in place by the act are often frustrating (and costly) roadblocks for industry like mining, and oil and gas drilling and for developers looking to build in areas where protected species live. Compliance with all the rules of the ESA is expensive. Environmental groups also count on the ESA as an important legal tool to block projects like coal mines.

The proposed rule changes is essence mean greater leniency in setting rules for threatened species on a case-by-case basis, as well as more freedom to include economic impacts in conservation decisions. The agencies that enforce the ESA would also be able to use discretion in deciding what’s meant by the term “foreseeable future.” (You can read the proposed changes in full here.)

These changes are part of a broad suite of policies advanced by the Trump administration to favor industries like mining and fossil fuels by eliminating or limiting the environmental protection rules they have to follow. They also come at a time when Republicans are trying to pass amendments to weaken the ESA through Congress.

The public now has 60 days to comment on these changes to the ESA before the Trump administration moves to finalize the rules. To get a better sense of how significant the changes are, let’s walk through the two biggest ones.

1) The administration wants to scale back protections for species that are “threatened”

Currently, species that are listed as “threatened” are defined as “any species which is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.” (Threatened is a designation that’s less severe than “endangered.”) The new rule will constrain what is meant by “foreseeable future” and give significant discretion in interpreting what that means.

“The Services will describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis,” the proposed rule states. As the Washington Post explains, this could possibly mean that in determining protections for plants and animals, regulators can ignore the far-flung effects of climate change that may occur several decades from now. “The Services will avoid speculating as to what is hypothetically possible,” the proposed rule states.

Also, currently, species listed as “threatened” are protected in a way nearly equal to those that are endangered. A new rule would make it so that, going forward, there could be two tiers of protections, with the rules regarding “threatened” species being made on more of a case-by-case (or, in the words of the proposal, “species specific”) basis.

On one hand, more species-specific rules might help the government address the particular conservation needs of certain species. On the other, the changes mean newly threatened species won’t be automatically protected. (And to be clear, the changes mentioned here won’t apply retroactively, but rather to new species that become threatened.)

2) The administration is removing language that bars assessing the costs of conservation

Currently, the services that enforce the ESA have to make their decisions solely based on scientific data, “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.” The proposed changed would remove that phrase. NOAA and Fish and Wildlife write that “there may be circumstances where referencing economic, or other impacts may be informative to the public.”

But conservation groups worry this opens the door to giving businesses more leeway when it comes to developing near protected habitats. The New York Times explains that deleting this phrase potentially makes it “easier for roads, pipelines and other construction projects to gain approvals than under current rules.” It could possibly be the case that in the future, if it’s determined that protecting a creature in a certain location is too costly, a project that could possibly harm it may still get a go-ahead.

Threats to the ESA are also coming from Congress

It’s not just the Trump administration that’s trying to weaken the ESA — Republicans in Congress have also been introducing legislation that would ease environmental restrictions on industry. One such amendment — passed by the House of Representatives as part of a spending bill, but not yet taken up by the Senate — forbids placing the sage grouse, the lesser prairie-chicken, and the American burying beetle on the endangered species list for the next 10 years.

The sage grouse and lesser prairie-chicken are (pretty funky looking) chicken-sized birds. The burying beetle is a black-and-orange bug that feeds on animal carcasses and is currently endangered. Both animals have the misfortune of living on lands where oil and gas companies would like to drill, as the New York Times reports.

The Endangered Species Act isn’t perfect. And there are legitimate debates to be had about how it’s enforced. For specific species, such as the Yellowstone grizzly bear, it can be legitimately hard to determine when a population has recovered and no longer warrants protection.

But the truth remains: The world has never been more deadly — save for a mass extinction event like an asteroid strike — for wildlife. It’s humans fault. More and more species go extinct every year. If we care about biodiversity, arguably, there’s never been a more important time to protect life. Yet, it’s the Endangered Species Act that’s now looking like it’s in danger.

Further reading: the Trump administration and wildlife

  • The proposals from NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are here to read in full. The public now has 60 days to comment on the proposals.
  • The Washington Post has a great rundown of some of the species that have seen a significant recovery because of the ESA.
  • The administration is also allowing the import of some endangered species “trophies” from foreign countries on a case-by-case basis.
  • And this is a good opportunity for a reminder: You can live-stream video of grizzlies in Alaska’s Katmai National Park right here.