Aug. 13, 2019 – Yesterday, the Trump administration announced sweeping changes to the way its agencies will administer the Endangered Species Act (ESA), one of the oldest, most effective, and most widely supported environmental laws in U.S. history.
These changes, which seek to eviscerate the ESA, go against Congress’ explicit mandate that management rely on the best available science and actively protect and restore plants and animals deeply vulnerable to extinction. With this action, the administration will allow politics and money to influence do-or-die decisionmaking on issues of endangered species recovery or decline on a scale never before seen in the history of this fundamental and necessary law.
In addition, the changes will allow the federal government to ignore extinction threats from climate change at the precise moment we’re witnessing the most dire ecosystem-wide shifts and extinction events in world history. For example, climate change is causing Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears to disperse though a wider range in search of food as the result of the decline of one of their primary food sources – whitebark pine – which in turn is causing record grizzly bear deaths as a result of increasing conflicts with humans and livestock.
Another change will eliminate automatic protections for species listed as threatened.
One of the ESA’s most crucial tools is protecting important habitat for endangered species. These changes are designed to allow more extractive industry activity in this habitat, and we expect the administration to use these new rules to green-light previously unthinkable decisions negatively affecting plants and wildlife.
The administration announced these changes in anticipation of an upcoming ESA decision on how to protect threatened Canada lynx, whose habitat in the Western U.S. is among the most negatively affected by the warming climate.
Likewise, the administration will soon announce a decision on whether or not wolverine deserve ESA protections–something required by a court order obtained by WELC that invalidated a prior decision to deny wolverine such protections. Wolverine denning habitat has been, and will continue to be, fractured and reduced by climate change, exacerbating risks associated with the fact that only a few hundred wolverines at most remain in the contiguous U.S. The modeling from the best and most widely published wolverine researchers has predicted the extent of the reduction in late-spring snow for wolverine denning, but the new rules may limit how the Fish and Wildlife Service considers such modeling.
This, combined with changes to the bedrock National Environmental Policy Act, represent the largest threat to the environment in the modern era of U.S. politics, and undermines the will of the people.
“Gutting one of the most popular, effective, and oldest environmental laws will spell disaster for not only keystone species themselves, but also for the ecosystems that rely on them to remain in balance,” said John Mellgren, wildlife program director for the Western Environmental Law Center. “This hostility to the environment has never before occurred in modern times, and we will use the full power of the law to prevent these bad-faith rules from undermining our fight against extinction.”
The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the public lands, wildlife, and communities of the American West in the face of a changing climate. We envision a thriving, resilient West, abundant with protected public lands and wildlife, powered by clean energy, and defended by communities rooted in an ethic of conservation. www.westernlaw.org