Attorneys general in 17 states on Wednesday made good on a promise to sue the Trump administration over rule changes that substantially weakened how Endangered Species Act protections are considered and enforced.
The attorneys general vowed to challenge the administration in mid-August when the Interior and Commerce departments announced new rules that would allow officials to decrease the amount of habitat threatened and endangered animals require to survive and remove tools used by scientists to predict future harm to species as a result of climate change.
The administration would also be allowed to reveal, for the first time in the 45 years since the act was signed into law by the Nixon administration, the financial burden of protecting wildlife.
Revealing the price tag and loss of potential development opportunities on protected land could open future threatened and endangered designations to challenges they have not face before now. Before the change, the act called for endangered plants and animals to be protected regardless of the cost.
The rules were changed as part of President Donald Trump’s effort 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 August. “These changes were subject to a robust, transparent public process, during which we received significant public input that helped us finalize these rules.”
Over nearly a half century, the Endangered Species Act has been credited with saving the bald eagle, American alligator, Florida manatee, grizzly bear, California condor, humpback whale and other animals from extinction. More than 1,500 plants and animals are currently listed as endangered or threatened.
“We’re going to try to undo what the president is proposing to do with the Endangered Species Act,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, said during a news conference that was streamed online. Becerra added that the coalition was “coming out swinging” to protect an act that plants and animals depend on.
Led by California, Maryland and Massachusetts, the coalition filed its complaint in a federal court in California. Attorneys general in Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington also signed on to the lawsuit. Washington, D.C., and New York City are also in the coalition.
The coalition released a statement saying the administration’s rollback of rules “removes current provisions that help prevent threatened species from becoming endangered or extinct.” Among them are rules that ban capturing and killing some species, it said.
Nick Goodwin, an Interior Department spokesman, said in an email that the regulatory changes “are long overdue and necessary.” He predicted that they “will recover more imperiled species facing extinction than previously accomplished over the span of this law.”
He said that the administration will defend its rules in court. “We will be steadfast in our implementation of this important act to improve conservation efforts across the country,” Goodwin said.
The rule changes followed a United Nations report that said 1 million species worldwide face extinction as a result of human activity. Wednesday’s lawsuit came on the heels of a separate report that 3 billion birds have been lost since the 1970s.
Considering those stakes, Becerra bemoaned the administration’s actions. “Why we have to do a news conference on this is beyond me,” he said. Becerra has filed more than 60 challenges to actions by the administration, 30 involving the environment.
In a statement, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, also criticized the timing of the administration’s change. “As we face a climate emergency and global extinction crisis threatening more than a million species, the Trump Administration is gutting Endangered Species Act protections to pave the way for oil and gas developments,” Healey said. “We are suing to defend federal law and protect our imperiled wildlife and environment.”
Theirs was the second coalition to challenge the administration. The lawsuit mirrors a complaint filed by environmental and animal rights groups about a week after the changes were announced.
Like the attorneys, the conservationists argue that the administration failed to disclose how the changes would affect the environment, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Some of the final rules “were never made public,” the conservationists said, cutting American citizens “out of the decision-making process.” The earlier court challenge was filed by Earthjustice for the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, WildEarth Guardians, and the Humane Society of the United States.
“California is home to hundreds of endangered and threatened species, and wildlife that owes its continued existence to the Endangered Species Act, including the iconic bald eagle,” Becerra said. “As we face the unprecedented threat of a climate emergency, now is the time to strengthen our planet’s biodiversity, not to destroy it.”