A federal push to weaken the Endangered Species Act — the latest target in the Trump administration’s crusade against environmental protection — is troubling on its face.
Making it worse is the behavior of the Interior Department. The agency is supposed to be a trusted steward of precious public resources, including endangered species and a fifth of the land in the United States. But it is hobbled by appearances of cronyism and reduced transparency.
This is of particular interest in Washington, where about 28% of the land is federal. There are 48 listed species occurring in the state, including 36 animals and 12 plants, and petitions for additional listings. If only they were as resilient as the lobbyists inhabiting the still undrained swamp of the other Washington.
Congress passed an endangered-species protection law in 1966 then expanded it into the ESA in 1973. Major successes include the bald eagle, which was facing extinction in the 1960s. Mandated protections led to its recovery, and bald eagles were removed from the federal endangered list in 2007.
Another success came in 2015 when the Interior Department avoided listing the greater sage-grouse — and prevented a costly legal battle — by developing recovery plans and protecting habitat in collaboration with landowners in the West. That demonstrated the ESA’s flexibility and the value of trusted leadership.
ESA rule changes are now being made under the direction of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and water-district lobbyist. He was elevated from deputy after the disastrous tenure of former Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid questions about travel expenses, lobbying influence and a real estate deal involving his family.
Upon Bernhardt’s promotion in April, he faced a flurry of ethical complaints. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden called for an investigation into allegations that Bernhardt blocked a damning report on how endangered species were affected by a widely used pesticide, and the states of California and Massachusetts plan to sue over the ESA changes.
Interior’s inspector general is also conducting an ethics investigation of Bernhardt. It is examining allegations that a new public-information policy undermines transparency, by increasing the involvement of political appointees in public-records requests.
Minor changes may be needed to update ESA rules. The act is a dynamic framework for decision making to protect and recover species at risk of extinction, and preserve habitat they need to survive.
These are complex, controversial decisions in the best of times. When trust in Interior’s motives erodes, and the department makes it harder for the public to be fully informed, the process breaks down further.
Despite opposition from tens of thousands during a public-comment period, the agency is forging ahead with broad changes that increase flexibility but also make it more vulnerable to politicking. One would end blanket protections for species newly listed as threatened and allow a case-by-case approach, similar to how threatened marine species are handled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Another change enables the agency to start assessing economic impacts when it considers listing species as endangered or threatened.
The concern is that listing decisions will be skewed by economic considerations, undermining the scientific approach that’s a defining feature of the ESA. The act mandates that listing decisions be based only on the best available scientific and commercial data.
In response, Interior pledged to abide by the statute in making listing decisions. It’s correct that presenting economic impacts of listing decisions would give the public more information.
But it’s difficult to trust that new listing decisions won’t be heavily skewed by economic considerations. Bernhardt’s previous career was advocating for the economic interest of companies affected by such regulations, and he faces multiple allegations of favoring them as a public servant.
The secretary has leeway to protect critical habitat to “the maximum extent prudent.” The key word is prudent. Will economic studies influence Bernhardt’s determination of what’s prudent, or provide cover for “prudent” decisions that provide less species protection than called for by science?
Tweaks may be needed to the ESA. But an Interior Department facing ethical questions, led by a former oil lobbyist and politicizing public disclosure hasn’t earned the trust to make such changes.