Trump Admin Guts Endangered Species Act in the Midst of Climate Crisis and Biodiversity Loss
The Trump administration announced sweeping changes to the Endangered Species Act Monday in a move that could make it harder to protect plants and animals from the climate crisis, The New York Times reported.
The changes would make it easier to remove species from the list, end the blanket rule giving threatened species the same protections as endangered ones, allow regulators to assess the economic impacts of protecting a species and give the government major leeway in how it interprets the phrase "foreseeable future." This last change is relevant to species threatened by the climate crisis, since many of its effects may be decades away.
Interior Secretary and former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt claimed the changes would increase transparency.
"The act's effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation," he said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
Today, I unveiled improvements to the implementing regulations of the Endangered Species Act. In its more than 45-year history, the ESA has catalyzed countless conservation partnerships that have helped recover some of America’s most treasured animals and plants. pic.twitter.com/soY9AEBH3P— Secretary David Bernhardt (@SecBernhardt) August 12, 2019
"We're facing an extinction crisis, and the administration is placing industry needs above the needs of our natural heritage," Natural Resources Defense Council Nature Program legal director Rebecca Riley said in a statement.
BREAKING: The Trump admin. just finalized dangerous and drastic rollbacks the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which protects at-risk species from gray wolves to bald eagles. https://t.co/Uni8JhOuDx pic.twitter.com/aeZn1wJaDR— NRDC 🌎 (@NRDC) August 12, 2019
The Endangered Species Act has saved 99 percent of listed species from extinction, according to HuffPost. Notable successes include the bald eagle, Yellowstone grizzly bear and humpback whale, but scientists warn that the new rules could prevent the act from performing similar rescues in the future. Take the North American wolverine, which the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is deciding whether or not to protect. The cold-loving mammal could lose a third of its U.S. range by 2050 and two thirds before 2100 due to rising temperatures, The Guardian reported.
"The current science suggests that a warming climate is most likely going to have an adverse impact on the wolverine," Jeff Copeland, a retired Forest Service biologist who now works with the Wolverine Foundation, told The Guardian. "That's the debate that needed to happen."
But, because of the Trump administration's changes to the interpretation of "foreseeable future," it likely won't.
Environmental groups are also concerned by the removal of language saying protection decisions must be made "without reference to possible economic or other impacts of determination."
FWS assistant director for endangered species Gary Frazer told The New York Times that the language was only being removed to allow economic impact assessments to be conducted for informational reasons. He said they would not inform protection decisions.
But conservation groups mistrusted the language change. The only reason for writing economic impact reports, Obama-era Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told HuffPost, is to "poison the well and obtain a sort of public reaction to the listing."
Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, agreed the language removal was dangerous.
"There can be economic costs to protecting endangered species," Caputo told The New York Times. "If we make decisions based on short-term economic costs, we're going to have a whole lot more extinct species."
By undermining the Endangered Species Act, the Trump admin not only risks the future of iconic wildlife species, but further threatens the balance of fragile natural systems that we humans depend on for survival. #TrumpExtinctionPlan #StopExtinctionhttps://t.co/dqp8RJyiA7— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice) August 13, 2019
Earthjustice has already promised to sue over the changes, according to HuffPost, as have Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
"I know that gutting the Endangered Species Act sounds like a plan from a cartoon villain, not the work of the president of the United States," Healey said during a press call reported by HuffPost. "But unfortunately that's what we're dealing with today."
How Trump Could Make the Extinction Crisis Even Worse: https://t.co/8Z2YmDch91— Extinction Symbol (@extinctsymbol) May 9, 2019
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.