WASHINGTON, DC, August 12, 2019 (ENS) – In an attack on imperiled wildlife, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service today released the final changes to three proposed rules of the Endangered Species Act, ESA.

The changes, which could lead to extinction for hundreds of animals and plants, are illegal and will be challenged in court, warned the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

Republicans

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, far right, announces new Endangered Species Act rules to a group of Republican supporters, Aug. 12, 2019, Washington, DC (Photo courtesy DOI)

The rules finalized today were developed under the supervision of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel industry lobbyist. They weaken protections for threatened and endangered species across the country.

“These changes crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections for America’s most vulnerable wildlife,” said Noah Greenwald, the Center for Biological Diversity’s endangered species director.

“For animals like wolverines and monarch butterflies, this could be the beginning of the end. We’ll fight the Trump administration in court to block this rewrite, which only serves the oil industry and other polluters who see endangered species as pesky inconveniences,” declared Greenwald.

Reaction to the changes divides along party lines, with Democrats and environmentalists saying the changes undermine the intention of Endangered Species Act and put thousands of species at risk of extinction at a time when scientists are warning that species are vanishing at unprecedented rates.

Characterized by Republicans as an “improvement, the changes favor industry over imperiled species.

“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 Secretary Bernhardt today. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said, “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. These changes were subject to a robust, transparent public process, during which we received significant public input that helped us finalize these rules.”

One set of regulatory changes weaken the consultation process designed to prevent harm to endangered animals and their habitats from federal agency activities.

A second set of changes curtails the designation of critical habitat and weakens the listing process for imperiled species.

A third regulation would eliminate all protections for wildlife newly designated as “threatened” under the Act.

Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said, “We are in the middle of an extinction crisis, and President Trump is bulldozing the most important tool we have to protect endangered species. These rollbacks of the ESA are for one purpose only: more handouts to special interests that don’t want to play by the rules and only want to line their pockets.”

“This action by the Trump administration adds to their ongoing efforts to clear the way for oil and gas development without any regard for the destruction of wildlife and their habitats. I have serious questions on whether inappropriate political influence was exerted over decisions that should be based on the best scientific information,” Grijalva said.

wolverine

 In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the wolverine as threatened un-der the ESA. Wolverines survive in Alaska, the Cascade Mountains in Washington and the  Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming. Individuals have entered historic ranges in California and Colorado, but have not established breeding populations there. Total U.S. population unknown. July 31, 2014 (Photo by Magnus Johansson)

The changes are part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to undo protections for air, land, wildlife and water across the country.

“The ESA directs that determinations to add or remove a species from the lists of threatened or endangered species be based solely on the best available scientific and commercial information, and these will remain the only criteria on which listing determinations will be based,” Bernhardt said.

Under these new rules, threatened species will no longer have guaranteed protections under the ESA, essentially nullifying the value of listing a species as threatened.

Among other changes, the new regulations:

* – Change the definition of “foreseeable future” to allow decisionmakers to ignore long term threats to wildlife, including threats from climate change.

* – Allow agencies to create exemptions for critical habitat designations, particularly unoccupied critical habitat, which are often essential to the conservation and recovery of the species.

* – Allow FWS and NMFS for the first time to consider economic factors during species’ listing decisions, which critics claim is contrary to the spirit of the ESA.

“With this change, the agencies plan to compile and reference information on the economic impacts of listing decisions, but claim it will not influence their determinations, effectively undermining their own scientific review,” Grijalva said.

Under a change relating to federal consultations, impacts to critical habitat will be ignored unless they impact the entirety of an animal’s habitat. This disregards the cumulative “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” process that is the most common way wildlife declines toward extinction.

The new rules will prohibit designation of critical habitat for species threatened by climate change, even though, in many cases, these species are also threatened by habitat destruction and other factors.

condor

California condor #4. Once listed as extinct in the wild, a “radical” recovery program started 30 years ago under the Endangered Species Act has restored the population to 1,000 in July 2019. (Photo 2014 by Ken Clifton)

The rollbacks will preclude the designation of critical habitat for areas where species need to move to avoid climate impacts. The new rules will limit wildlife agencies’ ability to designate critical habitat in unoccupied areas needed for recovery.

That ignores the fact that many threatened and endangered species have lost substantial range and need their historic habitats preserved to provide living space for recovering populations.

The Republican reactions are encapsulated by these comments from three senators.

“This is a win for Montana and the West, and will help restore commonsense, science-based decision making when it comes to the Endangered Species Act,” said U.S. Senator Steve Daines, a Montana Republican. “These new rules will lead to more transparency, increased recovery of species greater conservation, and will help take the decision-making powers out of the hands of radical activists in the courtroom.”

U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said, “Today’s action by Secretary Bernhardt and Fish and Wildlife Service is a much-needed step in the right direction for the Endangered Species Act. We’ve seen before how the Act can be abused by environmental activist agendas, but by increasing transparency and ending the practice of one-size-fits-all reactions, we can end their sue [sic] and settle tactics while promoting responsible conservation without heavy-handed government intervention.”

The current chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, said, “Congress needs to work across party lines to find common ground. I will continue to partner with states, stakeholders, and other senators from across the political spectrum on this important issue. We must modernize the Endangered Species Act in a way that empowers states, promotes the recovery of species, and allows local economies to thrive.”

The final regulations submitted to the Federal Register can be found here: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/improving_ESA/regulation-revisions.html.

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