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Endangered Species Act Revisions Weaken Protections for Animals, Plants Facing Extinction

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Endangered Species Act Revisions Weaken Protections for Animals, Plants Facing Extinction

USFWS photo: northern long-eared bat

The federal government has announced major changes to the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, making it more difficult to protect vulnerable animals and their habitats.

The changes weaken the amount of protection received by threatened species and make it easier to remove a species from the more restrictive endangered species list. 

The government will also have to perform an economic impact assessment when determining whether a species can receive protection under the act.

Secretary of the Department of the Interior David Bernhardt said the changes would make implementation of the Endangered Species Act more successful.

“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal—recovery of our rarest species. The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” said Bernhardt. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”

David Bernhardt, the 53rd Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, was a lobbyist and natural resources attorney for the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he represented the business interests of oil and agricultural companies. Bernhardt says the changes to the Endangered Species Act will help improve its effectiveness. Environmental groups disagree.

According to Bernhardt’s official biography, he is an avid hunter and angler and had a conservation role while serving on the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries for the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

But Bernhardt also worked as a natural resources attorney and lobbyist, and is a shareholder, with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he represented the business interests of oil and agricultural companies. 

Environmental groups in Indiana and across the nation say those interests are well represented in the Act’s changes.

“The changes are going to harm every species that’s listed or should be listed,” said Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter president Bowden Quinn. “The changes are hugely damaging to our wildlife.”

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon. The law requires federal agencies to avoid jeopardizing the survival of species considered threatened or endangered and requires actions to promote species recovery.

The law gives the Secretary of the Interior power to issue regulations “he deems necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of such species.”

The Endangered Species Act gives the Secretary of the Interior power to issue regulations “he deems necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of such species.”

Previous administrations have used that power to provide blanket protections for threatened species. Any plant or animal species deemed threatened automatically received the same protections as endangered species.

Instead of blanket protections, the Trump administration will adopt species-specific protections.

“We find that there are often benefits of doing a species-specific rule,” said Gary Frazer, assistant director for endangered species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We can encourage voluntary conservation efforts. We can regulate things that are important and not regulate those things that aren’t.”

That change is expected to have a negative effect on federally listed threatened species in Indiana.

“Threatened species and those that should be considered are under the gun,” said Quinn. “The northern long-eared bat, the rufa red knot in northern Indiana and Lake County, the copperbelly water snake…those are under threat.”

Species considered "threatened," like the northern long-eared bat, will no longer receive the same protections as species considered "endangered." USFWS photo

The Trump administration also limits regulators from considering climate change effects when determining a species’ listing status.

The law defines threatened species as any “which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.” The Interior Department now defines “foreseeable” as “only so far into the future as the Services can reasonably determine both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are likely.”

That definition essentially blocks regulators from using climate change effects in their listing determinations, as long-term projections could now be outside the bounds of the “foreseeable future.”

But Quinn and other environmentalists say the economic impact assessment could be the administration’s most effective weapon in blocking protections for vulnerable species. 

According to the libertarian think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute, protecting endangered species could cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars. 

USFWS officials say there are no specific plans for how economic impacts will be assessed, but those will be developed when a species faces a listing determination.

The administration’s changes to the law could allow regulators to deem a species too costly to save, a boon to industries who may want to develop the habitat of a potentially vulnerable species.

The venomous eastern massasauga rattlesnake has been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. It is likely to become endangered in the future.

“These actions are so egregious and so clearly aimed at supporting polluting and extractive industries like mining, logging, gas and oil,” said Quinn.

A United Nations report found that human activity is threatening nearly 1 million animal and plant species with extinction, putting the ecosystems upon which the world’s population depends at grave risk.

If federal protections are weakened, Hoosiers will have to act locally to protect vulnerable species.

“People who care about wildlife in Indiana should turn our attention to the Department of Natural Resources and insist that we provide these species, both animals and plants, with protection even if the federal protections are withering away,” said Quinn.

A “threatened” listing does not legally apply to species in Indiana. Basically, a species is either endangered and receives special protections or is not endangered and does not.

DNR currently lists about 290 animal species and 600 plants on their Endangered and Special Concern Species List. 

The special concern listing acts as a watchlist for future listing determinations by DNR. A species’ status can be modified when the state submits a federally mandated State Wildlife Action Plan at least once every ten years.

Local action is not the only course of action available to the environmental and animal protection groups. They also plan to challenge the changes in court. 

More than half a dozen of the groups filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, claiming that the new rules illegally failed to disclose and analyze the harms and impacts of the rules, inserted new changes to the rules that were never made public and were not subject to public comment, and violated the language and purpose of the Endangered Species Act.

“In the midst of an unprecedented extinction crisis, the Trump administration is eviscerating our most effective wildlife protection law,” said Rebecca Riley, legal director of the nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement. “These regulatory changes will place vulnerable species in immediate danger – all to line the pockets of industry. We are counting on the courts to step in before it’s too late.”

Produced by the Indiana Environmental Reporter