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Monday, August 12, 2019

Federal government finalizes changes to weaken Endangered Species Act

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

In the past two years, our federal government has waged war against the Endangered Species Act, the bedrock law that protects endangered and threatened animal species and their habitats. Today, despite our hopes that it would take the steps necessary to enforce our nation’s many animal protection laws, the Trump Administration dealt a critical blow to wildlife protection, finalizing rules to significantly weaken the Endangered Species Act and make it harder to achieve federal protections for endangered and threatened species.

Lion-Vanessa-Mignon-270x240
Photo by Vanessa Mignon

The finalization of these rules empowers the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to block vital and necessary conservation measures to protect species threatened with extinction. The rules are intended to remove prohibitions on the consideration of possible economic impacts when listing a species as endangered or threatened, privileging economic and political considerations above conservation imperatives in deliberations concerning listing a species under the Act. They also promise to establish additional roadblocks to securing comprehensive protections for threatened species, while making it much easier to remove species from the ESA, even without evidence that species recovery might not yet be complete.

The ESA has been historically successful in its facilitation of collaboration among federal, state, tribal and local officials to protect vulnerable species. However, the finalized rules package shifts focus away from federal management of imperiled species. Instead, it gives states and local governments substantial power over managing species that would otherwise be protected by the Endangered Species Act. This is a great danger.

Unfortunately, the record of the states in endangered species protection is not as good as one could hope. Many states lack the financial resources to take on endangered species protection, and a large number lack laws to protect all of the federally-listed endangered or threatened species within their boundaries. Still worse is the fact that a number of key states do not prioritize wildlife protection with sincerity or fairness. We saw this lack of good stewardship when gray wolves and grizzly bears lost federal ESA protections in Wyoming and the state promptly declared trophy hunting seasons on these animals.

Together, the new rules comprise the largest regulatory revision to the Endangered Species Act in decades. It amounts to a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” approach, and aims to extinguish one of the country’s most effective statutes, on which the survival of so many wildlife species depends. The ESA has saved more than 99 percent of listed species from going extinct, and if it is weakened it will be much more difficult to ensure that threatened and endangered animals, including species like the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and African lions and elephants, do not go extinct.

This move really cuts against the grain, because it is clear that the American public strongly supports the ESA. A 2015 poll by Tulchin Research found that 90 percent of Americans, including 82 percent of self-described conservatives, support upholding the ESA. Other studies, such as the study by Hart Research Associates in 2016, found that 70 percent of Americans oppose removing ESA protections from iconic, threatened species such as the gray wolf. And if that wasn’t enough to show how deep support for the ESA runs in the American consciousness—over 800,000 comments were submitted in opposition to these rules. It’s no consolation that the administration has no plan to apply the regulations retroactively to previous decisions concerning species currently protected under the ESA. It spells doom for imperiled species from here on, and that’s why we are outraged.

Instead of listening to the collective voice of these 800,000 Americans—the FWS and NMFS have decided today to side with special interest groups determined to eliminate protections for our nation’s beloved wildlife, all to make economic and development ventures more profitable. It’s a shameful move, one that will have far reaching ramifications for years to come, and one that we must continue to oppose.

Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

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