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Environmental Groups Sue Trump Administration Over New Endangered Species Act Rules

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Environmental Groups Sue Trump Administration Over New Endangered Species Act Rules

A government study confirmed in March the endangered red wolves are a separate species worthy of protection.

Valerie / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A coalition of some of the largest environmental groups in the country joined forces to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Trump administration's maneuver to weaken the Endangered Species Act.


The Department of the Interior's changes to the Endangered Species Act — which has successfully protected 99 percent of the animals on the list and saved the iconic bald eagle, grizzly bear and gray wolf from the brink of extinction — make it easier to remove species from the list, ends protection for threatened species that are not yet endangered, and allows regulators to weigh the economic cost of protecting a species, as Ecowatch reported.

The groups that filed the complaint in the Northern District of California yesterday allege that the changes undermine the purpose of the law, according to CNN. The environmental groups claim that the manipulations of the law will drastically weaken protections for plants and animals, while benefiting industry groups and landowners, according to The Hill.

"Trump's rules are a dream-come-true for polluting industries and a nightmare for endangered species," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. "Scientists around the world are sounding the alarm about extinction, but the Trump administration is removing safeguards for the nation's endangered species. We'll do everything in our power to stop these rules from going forward."

The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), National Parks Conservation Association, WildEarth Guardians and the Humane Society of the United States.

The administration's tweaks to the law are particularly striking for their timing, which come just after a United Nations report that warned of a worldwide biodiversity crisis and predicted the extinction of one million species by the end of the century due to the climate crisis.

"In the midst of an unprecedented extinction crisis, the Trump administration is eviscerating our most effective wildlife protection law," said Rebecca Riley, legal director for NRDC's Nature Program in a statement.

The complaint makes several arguments to the court in asking it to reverse the Interior Department's changes. It claims that the Trump administration violated the National Environmental Protection Act by refusing to analyze how its changes will affect various species. The suit also argues that there are discrepancies between the agency's draft proposal and the final rules. That means another legal requirement was violated since the final rules were never available for public comment, as The Hill reported.

Additionally, the complaint alleges that the Trump administration trampled on the Endangered Species Act by changing the law that requires federal agencies to ensure that actions they authorize, fund or carry out do not harm any species or its habitat that is listed as threatened or endangered.

"Nothing in these new rules helps wildlife, period," said Kristen Boyles, Earthjustice attorney, in a statement. "Instead, these regulatory changes seek to make protection and recovery of threatened and endangered species harder and less predictable. We're going to court to set things right."

The changes to the law could also significantly lengthen how long it takes for species' protection, which could further threaten them, according to CNN.

"The new rules move the Endangered Species Act dangerously away from its grounding in sound science that has made the Act so effective — opening the door to political decisions couched as claims that threats to species are too uncertain to address," said Karimah Schoenhut, Sierra Club staff attorney, in a statement. "In the face of the climate crisis, the result of this abandonment of responsibility will be extinction."

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Cottongrass blows in the wind at the edge of Etivlik Lake, Alaska. Western Arctic National Parklands / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.