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Endangering Animals and Cooperation

Terry H. Schwadron

July 24, 2018

Care about endangered animals?

The Trump administration apparently thinks you’re overly concerned, and getting in the way of industry at the same time.

The Departments of the Interior and Commerce this week introduced legislation to change the Endangered Species Act, basically streamlining some of its processes and ending lifelong protections for threatened species. The changes would make it easier to “delist” specific populations that have escaped extinctionand moved back to a lesser threatened status.

Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Greg Sheehan called the proposal a way of “providing clarity,” explaining that the proposed changes would help the agency meet the Endangered Species Act’s main goal of “species recovery” so that animals and plants could more easily be removed from endangered and threatened species lists.

Clearly anyone not in the government would say this will put endangered animals and plants more at risk, and make it more difficultto protect habitat near land where endangered species live.

Specifically, the new proposal makes economics equal to science in making the determination of what species are endangered. In the new way of discussing double negatives, the proposal removes language that guides Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials to ignore economic impacts when determining how wildlife should be protected.

The proposed rules also include an interpretation that a species considered endangered would be protected for a “foreseeable future” that extends “only as far” as it can be reasonably determined that “both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are probable.”

The reason, seemingly as with all of Trump’s economic policies, is to streamline business development that might meet obstacles with meeting the endangered species law. Various industry groups have demanded changes from protections that they see as overbearing and unsuccessful. Critics of the law have argued that only 3 percent of all species placed on the endangered list have ever been delisted.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the proposed rule a favor to industry. “The Trump administration doesn’t seem to know any other way to handle the environment than as an obstacle to industry profits. . . this is part of the endless special favors the White House and Department of the Interior are willing to do for their industry friends.”

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have been strengthening opposition to animal protections in several areas.In April, the administration weakened a century-old law to protect birds by issuing guidance that says it would not be used as it had been to hold people or companies accountable for killing the animals.

In May, the National Park Service announced it would end an Obama-era protection that prohibited the hunting of bear cubs, as well as wolves and pups in their dens, in Alaska. In April, Fish and Wildlife employees were told they could no longer advise land developers when they would need to apply for a special permit necessary to maintain endangered species’ habitats, leaving that decision to builders. A recent House bill included riders rolling back particular species protections.

Interior and Commerce officials said the Endangered Species Act proposal would be published in the Federal Register “in coming days.” The public can submit comments on a government website within 60 days after publication.

Officials argued that failure to delist improving species takes money and effort away from worsening species.

A key issue under the proposal would involve limiting the way threatened species are protected, weakening a rule governing private lands.

Another proposal centers on quickening the consultation process between other federal agencies — such as the Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers — and the Interior Department on whether planned projects may affect protected plants and animals.

Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt described the proposed changes as an effort to fulfill President Trump’s executive order to scale back government regulation. “Some of our regulations were promulgated back in 1986, and frankly a great deal has been learned” since then, Bernhardt said. If the proposal is approved, likely by year’s end, protections for threatened plants and animals would be made on a case-by-case basis.

Conservationists who worried about the changes, expected for months, said their fears have been realized. They decried numerous aspects of the proposal, including the removal of a requirement compelling federal agencies to consult with scientists and wildlife agencies before approving permits for ventures such as oil and gas drilling and logging.

In April, the administration weakened a century-old law to protect birds by saying the law would not be used as it had been to hold people or companies accountable for killing the animals.

A New York Times editorialsaw the proposals as overbroad, ill-thought and not only bad for animals but for a spirit of creative cooperation in Washington. “Not only has Mr. Zinke shown no enthusiasm for such a strategy; responding to bleats from some oil and gas interests, he’s actually seeking to repudiate much of the Obama plan. So much for collaboration. So much for the sage grouse.”

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told reporters, “If these regulations had been in place in the 1970s, the bald eagle and the gray whale would be extinct today. If they’re finalized now, (Secretary Ryan W.) Zinke will go down in history as the extinction secretary.”


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