The revisions have wide-reaching implications, including for how the federal government would protect species from climate change.
The Trump administration unveiled a proposal Thursday that would strip the Endangered Species Act of key provisions, a move conservationists say would weaken the law that brought the bald eagle and the Yellowstone grizzly bear back from the edge of extinction.
Republicans say the law enacted 45 years ago to protect plants and animals in decline is cumbersome and restricts economic development.
The proposal, announced jointly by the Interior and Commerce departments, which are charged with protecting endangered wildlife, would end the practice of extending similar protections to species regardless of whether they are listed as endangered or threatened. If the proposal is approved, likely by year’s end, protections for threatened plants and animals would be made on a case-by-case basis.
In another rollback of a key provision, the administration wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to strike language that guides officials to ignore economic impacts when determining how wildlife should be protected.
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Many of the proposed revisions have wide-reaching implications, including for how the federal government will protect species from climate change. For example, the administration has proposed a new definition of how it decides whether a plant or animal is in danger of extinction. Environmental activists criticized the new definition as too narrow.
David Bernhardt, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said the 1973 law had not seen major updates in 30 years and described the proposed changes as streamlining and improving the regulatory process. He rejected a suggestion that the moves would help the oil and gas industries, though business leaders have long sought similar changes.
“Together these rules will be very protective and enhance the conservation of the species,” Bernhardt said. “At the same time we hope that they ameliorate some of the unnecessary burden, conflict and uncertainty that is within our current regulatory structure.”
The changes are in keeping with a broader pattern of regulatory moves in the Trump administration aimed at reducing cost and other burdens for businesses, particularly the energy business. Last month the Trump administration also started the process of rolling back the National Environmental Policy Act, an obscure law that is considered the cornerstone of environmental policy, laying out the process federal agencies must follow when considering major infrastructure projects.
Western Republicans and business groups, particularly the oil and gas industry, have long sought changes to both laws. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), many have argued, is outdated, costly and allows for too many lawsuits from environmental organizations.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, praised the Trump administration proposal, saying that “for too long the ESA has been used as a means of controlling lands in the West rather than actually focusing on species recovery.” She said she hoped the changes, which she described as a “tightening” of procedures, will help lift restrictions on “responsible economic activities on private and public lands.”
Environmentalists expressed concern the changes will gut protections for the country’s most threatened species and cripple the agency’s ability to address climate change.
For example, the law now defines a threatened species as one “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” But the definition of “foreseeable future” has been vague.
Under the proposal, the federal government will for the first time create a definition. According to the Interior Department, it will “make it clear that it extends only as far as they can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ response to those threats are probable.”
Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group, said that move puts climate change in the cross hairs. “If they define it narrowly, then they’ll close their eyes to the fact that 30 years down the road, polar bears will be endangered due to sea-level rise,” he said.
Another significant change, which has been rumored since April, affects what is known as the “Removal of Blanket Section 4(d) Rule.”
The proposal would alter how the Endangered Species Act deals with animals that are categorized as “threatened,” or one level below “endangered.” Endangered species are at risk of extinction throughout much of their range, whereas threatened species are likely to become endangered in the near future.
The Section 4(d) rule requires agencies to automatically extend protections to threatened species that mirror those of endangered species. Changing that rule could roll back protections.
Richard Stewart, a professor of environmental law at New York University, said the logic for the Section 4(d) rule was that “if you wait until the species’ numbers are actually small enough that it’s going to become extinct, it may be difficult or too late” to save it. The threatened list, he said, is designed “to anticipate a species is sort of going downhill sufficiently in advance, and protect it.”
Bernhardt also said Thursday that a section of the law that provides for consultations among federal agencies when considering permit applications would be streamlined. He described it as “where the rubber meets the road of the Endangered Species Act,” and said he expected the process to be improved.
The Endangered Species Act passed Congress in 1973 with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Specifically, Section 4(d) directs the agencies that implement the act — the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — to issue regulations to protect threatened species from actions that injure or kill them.
There are hundreds of animal species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, including the Yosemite toad, the piping plover and the northern spotted owl. The protection of the owl is the source of a long-running conflict between loggers and environmentalists.
The public will have 60 days to offer comments to the proposed changes before a final plan is issued.