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Biden administration wins reprieve in fixing Endangered Species Act flaws

The ruling leaves in place Trump-era regulations that environmentalists claim gutted the ESA.

(CN) — The Biden administration can reevaluate changes made by the previous administration to the Endangered Species Act without at the same time fighting a trio of lawsuits by environmentalists and state and local governments that challenged the 2019 overhaul of the law.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in Oakland on Wednesday granted the requests by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to send the 2019 changes back to them for further reconsideration. The judge left the changes to the ESA intact, saying he couldn't vacate them without having first ruled on the merits of the environmentalists' claims.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental organization sued in 2019 after the Trump administration weakened several provision of the ESA such as not automatically extending protections against killing, harassing, harming or collecting threatened species as well as endangered species.

When the administration of President Joe Biden was installed last year, the White House indicated that it would reevaluate and rescind many of the 2019 changes to the ESA. That put the lawsuits on hold, but once the environmentalists and other plaintiffs didn't agree to further delays, and the judge denied the administration any additional stay, the government asked to have the rules remanded to Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries to finish their work reconsidering them.

The environmental groups now accuse the Biden administration of dragging its feet for the past two years and scoff at the notion that it will need another two years to complete its amendments while the 2019 flaws remain in place.

"With today’s ruling, the Trump rules will continue to upend decades of legal clarity and undermine protections for hundreds of species that have benefited from the established policy," the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. "It is now vital that the Biden administration move quickly to reverse all the harmful changes put in place by Trump."

Under the 1973 law, federal agencies must consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that their actions don’t jeopardize the safety of plants and animals listed for protection. 

Implementation of the act has prevented the extinction of multiple wildlife including the bald eagle, the California condor, the Alabama leather flower and Florida manatee. Today, the law protects 1,600 plant and animal species and designates millions of acres as critical habitat for their survival and recovery.

But the landmark legislation was slowly gutted by the Trump administration, which issued its new rules in August 2019 that it said would undo “unnecessary regulatory burdens” while maintaining safeguards for wildlife species.

The new rules allow economic factors to be considered when agencies are deciding whether to list species for protection under the act and also make it more difficult to protect areas where endangered wildlife is not found. 

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