Trump Administration Publishes New Federal Rules Undermining Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law by Republican president Richard Nixon in 1973 to save the American bald eagle. Without protection, the eagle could have disappeared from the US. Instead, it was delisted in 2007.  Steve Boice/Shutterstock 

In a controversial move, the Trump administration moved forward with publishing final rules that many argue weaken the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), a 45-year-old piece of legislation that has helped protect and restore some of the nation’s most iconic and treasured plants and animals.

In particular, the new rules eliminate a blanket rule that provides protections to species as soon as they are listed as “threatened” and automatically awards them the same protections as endangered species, including prohibitions on killing or trading, requiring additional species-specific protections to be drafted by federal agencies on a case-by-case basis.

Though the new rules retain the same statutory factors for listing a species, and require the best scientific and commercial data to be considered, it allows for economic impact analyses to be considered in listing decisions despite federal law prohibiting economic impact being a consideration in decision-making. Opponents of the new rules say the changes will prevent effective management, further imperiling threatened and endangered species. 

“Taken as a whole, the regulatory changes being made by the Services will weaken the ESA and hinder effective management of threatened and endangered species, and thereby also negatively impact species’ recovery,” said Wildlife Conservation Society in a statement, adding that releasing economic impacts of a potential listing puts “wildlife in the impossible position of justifying their existence with a specific dollar value.”

Proponents of the new rules say that they increase transparency and effectiveness and that the new rules remove “burdensome red tape” and modernize “outdated language”

“The act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in a statement.

Earlier this year the New York Times reported that in 2017 Bernhardt, who was Interiors deputy secretary at the time, allegedly blocked the publication of research that revealed two pesticides used in the US were putting 1,200 endangered species at risk. Freedom of Information requests showed multiple correspondences between Bernhardt and representatives of the pesticide industry who were pushing for looser restrictions before the report was blocked and new less strict rules were introduced.

Administrative rational says that critical habitat is not prudent and will now require that endangered species must be present in areas that are to be protected, potentially providing conflict for reestablishing species to their historic ranges, rather than just their previous range. Federal agencies also must consult with US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service in coordination with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

The ESA designates and protects critical habitat for threatened species, including those to protect endangered Florida manatees. Greg Amptman/Shutterstock

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