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How Trump Could Make the Extinction Crisis Even Worse

Insights + Opinion
How Trump Could Make the Extinction Crisis Even Worse
A grizzly bear crosses the Snake River as first light touches Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park. Photo courtesy of Thomas D. Mangelsen

By Alison Cagle

Despite an alarming UN report that warns one million plant and animal species face extinction due to human activity, the Trump administration is poised to hasten species on their path to extinction by eroding critical wildlife protections. The UN's landmark 1,500-page study, announced this week, warns that if we continue to destroy natural landscapes at rates "unprecedented in human history," massive biodiversity loss will undermine food security, access to clean water and sources of modern medicine by 2050.


The report's findings come amid efforts by the Trump administration to dismantle the most powerful legal tool we have for protecting imperiled wildlife in the U.S.: the Endangered Species Act. The rollbacks, first proposed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last summer, would weaken protections that shield the biodiversity the report warns is critical to the survival of all life on Earth.

The administration's move directly contradicts the UN report's conclusion that biodiversity is essential to life as we know it. The proposed changes would incorporate economic considerations into decisions about whether to protect species on the brink of extinction. The proposal also dismantles protections against hunting and trapping for species newly listed as threatened. It also alters the requirement that agencies consult with scientists before approving potentially harmful permits for development, mining, clear-cutting and other destructive activities. These steps follow President Trump's agenda of prioritizing energy dominance and giving handouts to the fossil fuel industry, regardless of the damage to our nation's endangered biodiversity.

"The UN report shows that if we're serious about protecting species not just for their own worth, but in order to save ourselves, we need to increase protections rather than decrease them," said Drew Caputo, Earthjustice vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans. "The administration's attempt to gut the Endangered Species Act is, as this report shows, a full-speed-ahead course of action in exactly the wrong direction. It's also totally illegal. If they finalize those rollbacks, we'll see them in court."

Drew Caputo, Earthjustice vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans

Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

The Endangered Species Act does more than ensure a legally binding safety net for animals and plants facing extinction. It enshrines in law the principle that economic prosperity cannot come at the cost of conserving our native species and the habitats they depend on. Since its passage in 1973, 99% of the animals protected under the Act have not perished. Those species include the American bald eagle, gray wolf and humpback whales. The Act is also crucial for restoring essential ecosystems: to date, more than 250 million acres of habitat are protected from harm under the law.

Our lawyers use the Endangered Species Act as the legal ground for countless cases to defend wildlife and wild lands, and to work toward securing a healthy environment for all species. Recent examples of how we've used the Endangered Species Act include:

Based on the draft of the Department of the Interior's planned Endangered Species Act rollbacks released last summer, the effect would be to weaken protections for imperiled wildlife and make cases like these harder to bring. Earthjustice attorneys are prepared to rapidly review the final rule when it is released, and are readying to take legal action if required.

By attempting to weaken our strongest wildlife protections, the Trump administration ignores not only scientific projections like the UN report, but also the will of the people: 90% of Americans support the Endangered Species Act. Instead of prioritizing short-term gains for the fossil fuel industry, the administration should heed the science, and reverse its policies on critically endangered species that destroy our planet's biodiversity.

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A resident works in the vegetable garden of the Favela Nova Esperanca – a "green favela" which reuses everything and is subject to the ethics of permaculture – in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Feb. 14, 2020. NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP via Getty Images

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An aerial view taken on August 8, 2020 shows a large patch of leaked oil from the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius. STRINGER / AFP / Getty Images

The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.

On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.

France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.

The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.

"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.

By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.

The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.

"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.

Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.

Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

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A "vessel of opportunity" skims oil spilled after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. NOAA / Flickr / CC by 2.0

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