The Trump administration is redefining how the government will protect endangered plants and animals. Today, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that they are considering rolling back regulations outlined in the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a 45-year-old law aimed at saving species that face extinction. The potential changes could limit the areas that can be designated as critical habitats, and alter the kinds of protections that threatened species receive.
To start, threatened species are getting a new definition. Right now, these species are considered as those that are at risk of becoming endangered in the “foreseeable future.” The agencies will change what “foreseeable future” means, making it clear that it “extends only so far into the future as the [agencies] can reasonably determine” that the risk of extinction is probable. The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to get rid of the ESA’s blanket rule that gave threatened species the same protections as endangered species.
The agencies propose changing how species are listed and delisted as endangered under the act. Now, a species will be delisted using the same criteria as the government uses to put a species on the endangered or threatened list.
“One thing we heard over and over again was that ESA implementation was not consistent and often times very confusing to navigate,” Greg Sheehan, the principal deputy director for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. “We are proposing these improvements to produce the best conservation results for the species while reducing the regulatory burden on the American people.”
The administration is also revising how federal agencies consult with NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure they’re not harming critical habitats. And it’s possible that less-critical habitats will be added under the act in the future. Now, before a new area can be considered a critical habitat for a species, the agencies must first do an assessment of all the habitats the species already lives in. “While the agencies recognize the value of critical habitat as a conservation tool, in some cases, designation of critical habitat is not prudent,” the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA said in a press release announcing the proposed changes.
Environmentalist groups have already criticized the announcement, arguing this will make it harder to designate new habitats for species that are threatened by climate change. “This proposal turns the extinction-prevention tool of the Endangered Species Act into a rubber stamp for powerful corporate interests,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Allowing the federal government to turn a blind eye to climate change will be a death sentence for polar bears and hundreds of other animals and plants.”
This isn’t the first time government officials have tried to roll back aspects of the Endangered Species Act, which was signed into law in 1973. The ESA is often credited with saving the bald eagle from extinction. However, the law has been a target for Republican lawmakers in recent years, who argue that its regulations have hampered those in the logging, mining, and oil industries, according to CNN. Last year, Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) introduced a bill that would make it harder for species to become listed as threatened under the law.