Disregarding more than 800,000 public comments opposing its proposal to weaken implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Trump administration finalized its sweeping rewrite of ESA regulations that undermine the conservation of threatened and endangered species. The Department of the Interior’s new regulations will eliminate key protections for threatened species, weaken bedrock consultation requirements, open the door to burdensome and inappropriate cost-benefit analyses that risk politicizing the ESA’s science-based listing process, and much more.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, issued the following statement:
“The United States and the whole world are facing a sixth extinction crisis, but the Trump administration is focused on weakening the world’s most successful law to conserve imperiled species. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services sounded the alarm that up to 1 million species may be threatened with extinction in coming years if we don’t take action. Instead of undercutting the Endangered Species Act and other bedrock environmental laws, we should be strengthening these laws to improve their effectiveness for people and wildlife. The sweeping changes made in these new regulations, however, will diminish the effectiveness of the Act and further imperil species already on the brink of extinction.
“Wildlife depends on the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act for their very lives. Yet, despite strong public opposition, the Trump administration is blindly moving ahead with these destructive and reckless policy changes. Defenders of Wildlife will continue to push the administration and Congress to do what science is telling us and what the overwhelming majority of Americans want – to ensure threatened and endangered wildlife are protected and recovered for future generations.”
- The Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife has created an ESA Story Map to tell the story about the Trump administration’s new Endangered Species Act regulations and how they will impact the species protected by the Act. The interactive story map examines the effects of the worst four regulations through the lens of individual species, then brings the story home with a map of the United States featuring one species per state to connect readers with protected wildlife in their backyard.
The Trump administration’s proposals for changes to the Endangered Species Act regulations will result in fewer protections for species and their habitat:
- Changes to the regulations will open the door for the economic impacts of listing a species to be evaluated and presented in the listing rules. Life is priceless, and decisions regarding listing must by law be based solely on the best available scientific and commercial data, without regard to economic costs or benefits. Doing irrelevant economic analyses would unnecessarily burden the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and elevate the risk that economic information would be improperly considered by this administration.
- The new regulations stack the deck against threatened animals by eliminating a rule extending the ESA's prohibition on "take" to threatened species. Under the final regulation, threatened animals will receive no protection from take or commercial exploitation unless the FWS writes a special rule providing such protection. The new rule increases the risk that threatened species will be deprived of fundamental protections because the FWS lacks resources to write such special rules or because of political decisions to shield developers and extractive industries from regulation. This change was made even though the previous rule, which ensured basic protections for threatened species, was successfully implemented for the past 40 years.
- The new regulations adopt a narrow definition of “foreseeable future,” allowing federal agencies to blind themselves to scientific evidence of long-term threats to species’ survival. Congress intended the ESA to provide strong, science-based protections for imperiled species. The new definition contradicts that intent for critical long-term threats to species such as climate change, where the science is clear both on the causes and consequences for wildlife and humans.
- The new regulations make it harder to designate critical habitat necessary for the conservation and recovery of listed species. Congress intended that critical habitat be designated for most species, but this rule would permit the Services to forgo designation if the chief threat to the species is disease or climate change. It is essential to protect unoccupied areas that species will need to survive in the foreseeable future, but the new regulations make it almost impossible to designate places that are not inhabited now but are likely to become habitat for a species in the future as conditions change. This regulatory change means that species threatened by climate change—where we are all but certain their range will need to shift for survival—may not receive the critical habitat protections the science indicates will be necessary. Furthermore, the regulations reduce the value of critical habitat designations by only requiring federal agencies to consider the impacts of federally-permitted projects on the “value of the critical habitat as a whole.” This enshrines in regulation a practice that results in the piecemeal destruction of critical habitat – death by a thousand cuts for habitat-limited species.
- The new regulations will allow federal agencies to blind themselves to the broad consequences of their actions through changes to the consultation requirements of section 7 of the Act. Section 7 consultations require that a federal agency that is funding, authorizing or conducting an activity consult with FWS or NMFS to ensure that the activity does not jeopardize the continued existence of endangered or threatened species or destroy their critical habitat. The proposed changes will unreasonably narrow the effects of agency actions required to undergo these consultations. For example, the final rule would bar consultation for effects like climate change where the impacts of the action are not felt in the immediate geographic area of the project. The new regulation adopts an expansive interpretation of the “environmental baseline” that allows federal agencies to ignore the ongoing impacts of their current operations on endangered species in consultations (allowing dam operators to ignore the harmful impact of their current operations on threatened or endangered salmon, for example).
- In September 2018, a broad coalition of more than 30 groups formally submitted more than 800,000 public comments opposing proposed changes to the regulations implementing the Endangered Species Act.