February 19, 2021
Jason Rylander

The Trump administration unleashed astronomical damage on the foundations of environmental protection over the past four years. Laws like the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), Clean Water Act (CWA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) were abused, weakened and threatened by the Trump administration despite their success and overwhelming bipartisan support from the American people.

Black-footed ferret poking out of a hole
Kimberly Fraser/USFWS

The ESA is the last line of defense for imperiled species, often the backstop to extinction. We cannot afford for this bedrock environmental law to be weakened. In just one of many egregious attacks, the Trump administration proposed an 11th-hour rule that would significantly diminish the strength of the ESA by allowing federal regulators to ignore new information about the impacts of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management plans governing actions, such as logging, roadbuilding, oil and gas leasing and other habitat-disturbing activities, that have the potential to harm ESA-listed species. 

The Trump administration began its assault on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in December 2017 with a legal opinion applying MBTA protections only to activities that are specifically intended to kill birds. So-called “incidental” take, regardless of its impact on bird populations or how foreseeable that impact is—such as letting birds drown in uncovered oil pits — was rendered immune from enforcement under the law. 

Snowy Egret wading with flying birds in background
David Krantz

Often described as the nation’s environmental charter, the National Environmental Policy Act plays a crucial role in ensuring federal agencies “look before they leap” by fully considering the consequences of their actions and programs. The Trump administration’s revisions to long-standing NEPA regulations undercut federal agencies’ responsibility to consider the cumulative effects of their actions and sanctioned agencies to ignore global processes like climate change. 

Undoing the Trump administration’s rollbacks should be a priority of President Biden and Vice President Harris. But to create a proactive conservation strategy to reverse the slide to extinction for imperiled species, the Biden administration must set its sights higher than simply patching things up. Restoring these essential environmental laws, completely changing course to restore transparency, accountability and the rule of law, fully funding the ESA and pursuing proactive goals like protecting at least 30% of lands and waters by 2030 are actions we desperately need to protect biodiversity. 

Thorne Bay in the Tongass National Forest

These laws should all work together to achieve far greater things than just stopping extinction. The Biden administration should use existing authorities—such as the Clean Air Act and the various agencies’ organic acts—to achieve climate change mitigation and adaptation goals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, in particular, should take steps to improve implementation of the ESA by 1) considering climate change appropriately as a factor in listing and delisting decisions and in five-year species status reviews; 2) incorporating climate change into ESA consultations and other decisions, by using modeling to determine how suitable habitat conditions will evolve over time, for example; and 3) addressing the threat of climate change in critical habitat designations and recovery actions. The administration should also reinstate robust and complete analyses under NEPA to ensure that all projects fully account for greenhouse gas emissions as well as climate change impacts on the proposed project and the affected environment.

Pea Island NWR dunes Cape Hatteras
D. Rex Miller

Other environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act, can also improve conservation outcomes for wildlife. To protect aquatic ecosystems, including highly biodiverse coastal ecosystems that help mitigate the impacts of climate change, the Biden administration should direct the Environmental Protection Agency to revise or develop new regulations to further the goals of the CWA. Federal agencies should also be directed to consider how to more explicitly include wildlife and habitat conservation protections in their administration of statutes like the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the National Flood Insurance Program, the Federal Power Act and other relevant laws. 

Round hickerynut mussel
Kendall Moles/USFWS

Charting the course forward, the administration must also integrate environmental justice into all government policies and practices, identify specific policy actions to redress past harms and welcome historically excluded Americans into nature and conservation. The Biden administration has an opportunity to ensure that the effects of federal actions on the quality of the environment and on public health in historically disadvantaged communities are fully evaluated, disclosed to the public and considered in federal decision-making, and that government decision processes are open and accessible to everyone. This includes restoring government transparency and laws that give voice to the concerns of diverse and disadvantaged communities, including the Freedom of Information Act, NEPA, Equal Access to Justice Act and citizen suit provisions in our environmental laws.

Many of these laws and protections were passed almost unanimously and signed into law by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. The majority of Americans support conservation efforts for wildlife and wild places and protecting our Earth is quite literally the best way to protect ourselves. For decades, the world looked to America’s groundbreaking environmental protections as examples of successful conservation protections but now, with a changing world, we must give these bedrock laws a boost so that they can continue to promote healthy ecosystems, mitigate climate change, protect biodiversity and involve communities.

This is part of a series about where we hope the Biden-Harris administration will take action for wildlife in the first 100 days. Read more:

← Moving Beyond the Paris Agreement      Protecting Habitat →


Jason Rylander headshot

Jason Rylander

Senior Endangered Species Counsel
Jason Rylander has litigated endangered species and habitat protection cases in federal courts across the country since joining Defenders in 2005.

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