WASHINGTON – The Trump administration moved Monday to weaken how it applies the 45-year-old Endangered Species Act, ordering changes that critics said will speed the loss of animals and plants at a time of record global extinctions.
The action, which expands the administration's rewrite of U.S. environmental laws, is the latest that targets protections, including for water, air and public lands. California and Massachusetts, frequent foes of President Donald Trump's environmental rollbacks, promised lawsuits to try to block the changes in the law. So did some conservation groups.
Pushing back against critics, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and other administration officials contend the changes improve efficiency of oversight while continuing to protect rare species.
“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal – recovery of our rarest species,” he said in a statement. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”
Under the enforcement changes, officials for the first time will be able to publicly attach a cost to saving an animal or plant. Blanket protections for creatures newly listed as threatened will be removed. Among several other changes, the action could allow the government to disregard the possible impact of climate change, which conservation groups call a major and growing threat to wildlife.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the revisions “fit squarely within the president's mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species' protection and recovery goals.”
The Endangered Species Act is credited with helping save the bald eagle, California condor and scores of other animals and plants from extinction since President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1973. The act currently protects more than 1,600 species in the United States and its territories.
While the nearly half-century-old act has been overwhelmingly successful in saving animals and plants that are listed as endangered, battles over some of the listings have been yearslong and legendary. They have pitted northern spotted owls, snail darters and other creatures and their protectors against industries, local opponents and others in court and political fights. Republican lawmakers have pushed for years to change the law itself.
One of Monday's changes includes allowing the federal government to raise in the decision-making process the possible economic cost of listing a species. That's even though Congress has stipulated that costs not be a factor in deciding whether to protect an animal. The prohibition was meant to ensure that the logging industry, for example, would not be able to push to block protections for a forest-dwelling animal on economic grounds.
Gary Frazer, an assistant director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters that the government would adhere to that stipulation by disclosing the costs to the public without it being a factor for the officials as they consider the protections.
But Brett Hartl, a government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group, contended that any such price tag would be inflated, and “an invitation for political interference” in the decision whether to save a species.
“You have to be really naive and cynical and disingenuous to pretend” otherwise, Hartl said.