Endangered Species Protection Stalled in Year 1 of Trump

A snail kite, critically endangered in the Florida Everglades. (Photo: Andreas Trepte/www.photo-natur.net/Wikipedia)

(CN) – A leading environmental group has compiled a list of 63 congressional actions introduced in 2017 that they say attack protections for species or undermine the Endangered Species Act.

While the Republican-controlled Congress has made many similar attempts to hamstring protections for imperiled species since attaining a majority in 2011, conservationists say with Trump at the helm many of these actions may now actually make it into law. A marked decrease this year in Endangered Species Act listing actions from the two federal agencies charged with protecting imperiled species also sends an alarming signal, they say.

“The Trump administration is shaping up to be the worst enemy of wildlife and endangered species we have ever seen,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity said in an interview. Greenwald’s group is among the most frequent petitioners to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of imperiled species.

After months of inaction regarding at-risk species, Fish and Wildlife – the agency tasked with protecting land-based species – said last month it had determined 25 species did not warrant Endangered Species Act protection, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“You couldn’t ask for a clearer sign that the Trump administration puts corporate profits ahead of protecting endangered species,” Greenwald said. “The Pacific walrus, Florida Keys mole skink, eastern boreal toad and 22 other species are now one step closer to extinction. We’re going to challenge as many of these bogus findings as we can.”

Greenwald said his group has filed intent-to-sue notices with Fish and Wildlife for the Pacific walrus and the mole skink, and have submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for the other rejected species as they evaluate their next steps.

Pacific Walrus (Courthouse News Service via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The denial of protection for the Pacific walrus, after the Barack Obama administration had already determined that listing was needed, exemplifies crucial differences in the two administrations’ approaches to protecting imperiled species. Climate change and oil development in the Arctic are major factors threatening the walrus, and Trump administration’s perceived denial of climate change and endorsement of oil and gas development, even in ecologically sensitive areas, may be key reasons for the about-face.

“There’s really no question that Pacific walrus are threatened by climate change, so denying them protection is absurd and dangerous. The sea ice these amazing animals need to survive is literally melting away,” the center’s legal director and senior attorney Kristen Monsell said in an interview. “The about-face decision to deny the walrus ESA protections reflects nothing but the Trump administration’s hostility to wildlife, science and the rule of law.  But walruses could vanish forever if federal officials keep ignoring their plight. That’s why we’re turning to the courts to overturn the denial and help save the walrus from extinction.”

Monsell wrote the 16-page notice of intent to sue, which is as peppered with citations from climate scientists’ research as the group’s 99-page petition to list the walrus was in 2008 – all seemingly ignored by the current Fish and Wildlife Service in denying protection for the walrus.

“Oil drilling in the Arctic will only increase threats to the walrus by increasing the risk of oil spills, exacerbating the climate crisis and perpetuating our reliance on dirty fossil fuels,” Monsell said. “As for the timing of the lawsuit, we sent our notice of intent to sue in mid-October and the 60-day waiting period before we can file suit runs mid-December, so we can’t file the lawsuit before then. So it’s unlikely we’ll have a decision before the end of next year.

“I don’t see this case settling, given the Trump administration’s hostility toward wildlife and desire to cater to the wishes of the oil industry. But we’re hopeful a court will see this decision for what it is, a reckless, unlawful political decision that ignores the requirements of the ESA and basic principles of administrative law.”

In Obama’s final year in office, 74 species were listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 2017, only 11 species have been listed, all follow-ups of proposed listings under Obama. Since a listing agency has leeway under the act to further consider proposed listing decisions for up to a year, this in itself is not unusual. What is more telling is the number of petitioned or proposed species that have been stalled.

Of the 21 species on the current proposed list, 15 were proposed by the previous administration and are awaiting further action. Two were withdrawn due to changes in taxonomic classification. Four were proposed for listing this year based on petition findings under Obama, with one of those species – the Taiwanese humpback dolphin – being proposed for listing by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency tasked with protecting marine species.

Meanwhile, “right around 500 CBD petitions are still awaiting actions,” Greenwald said, and “the Fish and Wildlife Service missed making listing decisions for 61 species and critical habitat determinations for 20 other species this year, in accordance with the agency’s workplan, or for those that were mandated through court orders.”

When asked what plans the agency has for listing actions before the end of the year, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Brian Hires said, “As noted in our seven-year workplan and unified agenda, also available online, we are due to make listing decisions on more than a dozen species in the coming weeks and months. I cannot comment on the actual nature of these findings until we actually announce them.”

Environmental groups often resort to litigation to force the listing agencies to act on petitions that have been filed, even though the Endangered Species Act has built-in timeline requirements for the listing process. For example, when the agency receives a petition to list an imperiled species, the agency is supposed to issue a 90-day finding on that petition: a determination, made after three months of study, that the petition either does or does not present sufficient scientific evidence of significant threats to the species’ survival.

If the agency determines the petition does merit further study, a 12-month finding is made, often accompanied by a proposal to list the species if the finding is positive. Once a listing is finalized, the agency has other timeline mandates to make critical habitat determinations and recovery plans for the species.

Under the act, the listing process should not take decades, but some species have waited that long for determinations to be made because the listing agencies often miss ESA-mandated deadlines.

Greenwald noted Fish and Wildlife’s already insufficient listing budget of $20 million was cut to a paltry $17 million in the 2017 budget. Both Fish and Wildlife and the Marine Fisheries Service have struggled for years to meet listing mandates due to budget constraints, as seen by the backlog of hundreds of species that are still in listing limbo.

Some species have been determined to be “warranted but precluded,” meaning the listing agency agrees the species should be listed but it cannot do so due to higher priority listings it is working on. That was the case with the walrus, which was found to merit listing in 2011, but the agency said at the time that further action on it was precluded by higher listing priorities.

With the advent of the Trump administration, consideration of the plight of predator species may also have shifted dramatically. Species such as wolves and bears – apex predators that are extremely important to viable ecosystems, according to environmentalists – that were receiving attention and protection efforts under Obama might now have some of those protections revoked.

As an example, the Center for Biological Diversity notes Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, recently attached a rider to a funding bill for the Department of the Interior urging the agency to end the red wolf recovery program and declare the species extinct. Red wolf populations had increased with protection efforts, but due to illegal shootings and a lack of serious investigation into those killings, the wild population now numbers only 45, the center said.

Of the 63 legislative actions making their way through Congress, eight specifically target wolves. One already passed and signed into law earlier this year rolled back Obama-era protections for bears and wolves in Alaska. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, allows wolf cubs and hibernating bears to be killed in their dens, permits wolves and bears to be shot from planes and allows the use of bait, snares and traps.

Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Director Gregory Sheehan testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources this past summer about five of House-sponsored bills involving endangered species. In voicing general support for the bills, his testimony highlighted a fundamental difference in how the mission of the Endangered Species Act is perceived. While environmentalists often claim that the act is a success because 99 percent of listed species have not gone extinct, the opposing perspective – which Sheehan shares – posits that the goal of the act should be to move species off the list as quickly as possible by putting in place conservation partnerships locally and turning over responsibility to the states.

“I find it helpful to think of the ESA as a hospital, where critically ill patients are admitted in hopes of recovery. We have done a pretty good job of keeping those patients from dying, but not so well on getting them discharged in healthy condition,” Sheehan testified. “Therefore, we need to step up our efforts to quickly diagnose the problems, define recovery actions, and get those patients back out into society.

“The ESA hospital was never intended to keep all patients indefinitely. I want the service and our partners to be more successful in recovering listed species so that the ESA is not needed for their protection.”

Yellowstone grizzly bear wearing a radio neckband (John Good/ National Park Service)

Environmentalists maintain voluntary conservation agreements without federal oversight are often poorly implemented and yield inconsistent results. To the dismay of environmental groups, federal protection was removed earlier this year from Yellowstone grizzlies because Fish and Wildlife said the bears were recovered.

“It’s tragic that the Trump administration is stripping protections from these magnificent animals just to appease a tiny group of trophy hunters who want to stick grizzly bear heads on their walls,” Andrea Santarsiere, a Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney, said at the time. “This outrageously irresponsible decision ignores the best available science. Grizzly conservation has made significant strides, but the work to restore these beautiful bears has a long way to go. The evidence clearly shows we need to protect Yellowstone grizzlies, not turn them into targets for trophy hunters.”

A renewed emphasis on hunting and fishing has added to the controversy. The recent executive order to lift the ban on elephant head trophies being imported into the United States stirred a national outcry. However, as Fish and Wildlife’s Hires points out, “Sportsman activities and the conservation of wildlife and natural resources often go hand in hand. There is a long history of this connection that goes all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt, who created the National Wildlife Refuge System and the nation’s first wildlife refuges.”

With Trump’s nomination of people opposed to conservation to head up the nation’s environmental agencies, and the GOP’s raft of bills aiming to curtail Endangered Species Act protections, concern runs high in groups like the Center for Biological Diversity that imperiled species may be in even bigger trouble now than they were before the advent of this administration.

“Hundreds of species are languishing while waiting for protection because of Trump’s malfeasance, and some will certainly go extinct,” Greenwald said.

 

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