As reported by the Austin American-Statesman, the Trump administration has picked Susan Combs, an ardent opponent of the Endangered Species Act 1973 (ESA), to oversee wildlife and parks at the Interior Department. She once compared proposed listings for the ESA to “incoming Scud missiles.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke picked Combs for the post of acting secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks. As noted by the Washington Post, she was given this role after an earlier nomination – as the Assistant Secretary for policy, management, and budget – received criticism from across the aisle in Congress, and was stalled.
Combs has a long history of opposing the Act, and has repeatedly crusaded to delist species on the ESA, arguing that their inclusion jeopardized economic growth. As uncovered by the American-Statesman in 2015, she once argued that bird protections impacted military training.
Her history reveals that she’s often completely ignored the advice of scientists, and has worked closely with fossil fuel industries to oppose the ESA whenever possible.
In her new role, Combs will have a considerable say over how the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is run and funded. That mean’s she’ll be able to influence the ESA itself to some degree – so should we be worried?
The ESA has long been a target of Republican (and sometimes Democratic) ire, who argue that it represents a costly example of federal overreach, and that those pesky animals get in the way of local economic development. The GOP, with the support of landowners and several resource-extracting industries, has been trying to get rid of the Act for decades.
Since the Republicans took control of the House back in 2011, they have made several hundred legislative attempts to nix it or remove endangered species from the list. Just last year, a series of bills were proposed to take as much of the scientific analysis out of the Act as possible. This is just history repeating itself.
Although the threat of repeal has always loomed large in some form or another, the ESA is still here, and this new appointment, although deeply concerning, is unlikely to change that. Saying that, the FWS has already signaled that changes are afoot, and this (temporary) appointment will only catalyze concerns.
Sure, the ESA isn’t perfect. Scientific American notes that only 1 percent of species under ESA protection have managed to recover sufficiently enough to be delisted, for example – but it’s also been pointed out that plenty of species haven’t yet been protected long enough for this to occur.
In general, though, the protection afforded by the Act has kept key species, from bald eagles to gray wolves, alive and sometimes thriving. Without the Act, it's estimated that around 227 species would have died out by 2006, along with several entire ecosystems.
However, “Putting Combs in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service is like appointing an arsonist as the town fire marshal,” Stephanie Kurose, endangered species specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the administration has been undermining and abandoning science advice to an unprecedented degree, while noting that the Interior Department is “mandating disregard.” Combs’ ascension, then, is just another embarrassing addition to the cornucopia of wildly inappropriate appointments that President Trump has made since coming into office.