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Endangered Species Act: How Trump administration changes weaken protections for threatened animals

Since being passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act has been one of the most powerful and effective tools for protecting biodiversity and staving off extinction ever put into law. It has been an essential tool for saving natural habitats, identifying threats to the livelihood of species and stabilizing populations of at-risk plants and animals. But as of today, the Trump administration is changing the way the Endangered Species Act is applied. Under the guidance of Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the government will roll back the protections that have saved thousands of species in order to make way for more mining and drilling projects that will take place in previously protected areas.

The biggest changes made by the Trump administration are as follows: Language that prohibited taking economic factors into consideration when deciding whether or not to protect a species has been removed. Blanket protections for animals placed on the threatened species list have been lifted and the requirements needed in order to remove a species from the endangered list have been loosened. Finally, text that asks authorities to consider the long-term concerns for a species has been tweaked.

To hear the Trump administration tell it, these changes represent a modernization of a law passed in 1973. In a press release published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the agency referred to the changes as series of "improvements" to the long-lasting law that would "bring the administration of the Act into the 21st century." In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said, "The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals." In the public-facing comments made by the administration, these are presented as small changes that will simply help make applying the law easier.

That isn't at all how environmentalists and experts in the field of conservation see things. Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a public statement the changes "crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act's lifesaving protections for America's most vulnerable wildlife." Drew Caputo, the vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, said "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."

When put into action, it seems likely that the new application of the law will have devastating effects on the well-being of at-risk plants and animals. To start, the administration's decision to remove protections on threatened species is counterintuitive to the goal of that designation. When an animal is placed on that list, it is to acknowledge that they are vulnerable and could become endangered in the near future, according to FWS. Typically, that designation would protect animals from being trapped, hunted, killed and enduring other forms of potential harm in order to preserve the existing population and help it grow until it is no longer at risk. The Trump administration will no longer extend those protections by default, which could result in animals being recognized as threatened but still ending up falling into endangered status, undermining the actual purpose of the designation.

Another change will restructure how habitats of endangered species are viewed. Previously, land owners and corporations were not allowed to disrupt any "critical habitat," or areas that are deemed to be essential to the survival of a species. Now, under the new rules, protections for critical habitat can be readily ignored as long as actions don't impact the entirety of a species' habitat. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, this opens vulnerable species up to "death-by-a-thousand-cuts." Essentially, many little infractions are allowed to happen because they don't destroy an entire habitat will, over time, effectively result in that habitat being destroyed anyway. A single encroachment on a species may not kill it, but over time they limit the odds of rehabilitation and may eventually lead to extinction.

One of the biggest changes made under the new rules is the decision to allow economic considerations when choosing to protect a species. That undermines the entire purpose of the original Endangered Species Act. Part of the point of the law is to recognize that staving off the extinction of a species may not be the best thing for a business that wants to develop in a protected area, but is the best thing for our overall ecosystem and environment. The law, as it was originally conceived, said that decision to protect a species were to be made solely on scientific evidence and “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of determination.” That will no longer be the case, and could serve as a significant win for mining and drilling companies that want to make use of land that would otherwise be protected. The fact of the matter is that protecting species can have costs and doesn't generate revenue the way a business does. Making decisions on short-term economic gains in favor of long-term environmental stability seems like a path that is destined to backfire over time — not that any of the people making those decisions are likely to be around long enough to suffer the consequences for it.

Finally, there is one of the smallest and vaguest changes that could have the biggest negative impact. Under the rules set forth by the Trump administration, the term "foreseeable future" will now be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, potentially limiting the scope for which threats can be considered. In practice, what that likely means is that scientists attempting to warn about the long-term effects of climate change on a species or a protected habitat will likely be ignored because the effects may not occur for several decades. If models show the potential for increased heat and droughts that would present a threat to a species 50 years from now, that may be considered too distant in the future for protections to be provided. This is a huge blow considering the United Nations recently warned that humans may drive as many as one million species into extinction.

These changes are not needed. The Endangered Species Act, by basically all accounts, has been a massive success. Since it was first implemented in 1973, it has a more than 99 percent success rate at preventing species extinctions. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, it is estimated that as many as 227 species would have become extinct if the law was not in effect. According to the Washington Post, species including humpback whales, bald eagles and grizzly bears all staved off an untimely end thanks to protections provided by the Endangered Species Act. More than 1,600 plant and animal species in the U.S. are currently protected by the law, and many are expected to successfully recover.

Sadly, the attack on the extremely successful law could be seen coming a mile away. Republicans have been attempting to chip away at the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act for years, and scored a major victory when Bernhardt was nominated to head up the Department of the Interior. Prior to joining the administration, he spent years serving as a lobbyist for the oil and mining industries, netting millions of dollars from corporations in those fields to do their bidding in Washington. Last year, he wrote an op-ed criticizing the Endangered Species Act for the supposed burden that it places on companies. Now he's made good on that promise to loosen the law in a way that will give businesses the ability to encroach on protected lands. These changes will face significant legal challenges from environmental groups who view the new rules as illegal, and those court battles may, at the very least, keep them from going into effect for a little. Still, this has all become standard practice under Trump, who will happily put industry foxes in charge of regulatory hen houses and allow them to gut the agencies from the inside. At this point, true regulators who protect the interests of the public good may be on the endangered list.