The Trump administration on Monday unveiled plans to change the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, a move lauded by industry but strenuously opposed by environmental groups.
Changes proposed by the US Interior Department are a rollback to the act credited with rescuing multiple endangered species in the US, notably the grey wolf and the bald eagle.
“These changes crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections for America’s most vulnerable wildlife,” said Noah Greenwald, the Center for Biological Diversity’s endangered species director.
The new rules will change how the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determine the status of animal species and for the first time allow economics to be considered.
The revision also will change how the agencies designate critical habitats for an endangered species, changes that the department argued are “designed to increase transparency and effectiveness and bring the administration of the act into the 21st century”.
“An effectively administered act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said the revision fits “squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals”.
The new rules, which are expected to be published in the Federal Register this week and take effect 30 days after that, were the results of the Interior Department’s July 2018 proposal aimed at “improving” the 1973 act, which protects more than 1,600 species in the US and its territories.
Last September, a coalition of 10 state attorneys general submitted objections to the proposed rule changes, saying they were”in clear violation of the ESA’s statutory language”.
“This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal,” said Drew Caputo, vice-president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, an environmental law organization.
Critics of the new rule focused on its introducing economic conditions into the listing decisions for species.
The new rule removes the phrase “without reference to possible economic or other impacts” of determining endangered species and threatened species from the act, which requires such determinations to be made based on science.
It brings “more transparency and certainty to the public about the way we’ll carry out our job”, said Gary Frazer, an assistant director at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, according to The Associated Press.
The new rules also are accused of weakening protection for endangered animals threatened by climate change by redefining the concept of “foreseeable future” as “extends only so far into the future as the Services can reasonably determine that the conditions potentially posing a danger of extinction in the foreseeable future are probable”.
The Center for Biological Diversity said that the changes would prohibit the designation of critical habitats for species threatened by climate change.
According to a UN report in May, climate change is one of the biggest drivers of change in nature. It is negatively impacting the distribution of almost half of land-based flightless mammals and nearly a quarter of threatened birds, the report said.
Overall, critics argue that revisions announced on Monday would limit agencies’ abilities to designate critical habitats for endangered or threatened animals, including those in need of moving to a new habitat as the previous one was under threat, and those needing a habitat for recovery.
While critics have vowed to take the issue to court, multiple industries applauded the changes.
The American Petroleum Institute said in a statement that the rules “clarify and improve the implementation of the Endangered Species Act through the reduction of duplicative and unnecessary regulations that ultimately bog down conservation efforts.”
“This is the most significant gain for property rights under the Endangered Species Act in decades,” said Jonathan Wood, a senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, a group representing landowners that challenged the agencies’ designation of critical habitat.
“Because an endangered species’ recovery meant no change in regulation, the rule undermined property rights and denied property owners any reward for helping that recovery,” he said, adding that the new rule “aligns the incentives of landowners with the interests of species”.
Some called out Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel-industry lobbyist, for leading the development of such rules that fit with the overall “anti-wildlife rule-making pattern by the Trump administration”, according to David J. Hayes, executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University and former Interior deputy secretary.