Environmentalists Sue to Block Evisceration of Endangered Species Act

A bald eagle takes flight at the Museum of the Shenandaoh Valley in Winchester, Va., on Feb. 1, 2016.  While once-endangered bald eagles are booming again in the Chesapeake Bay, the overall trajectory of endangered species and the federal act that protects them isn’t so clearcut. (Scott Mason/The Winchester Star via AP, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – After 45 years of saving animals like the bald eagle and grizzly bear from extinction, new Endangered Species Act rules will weaken protections for thousands of plant and animal species, according to a lawsuit filed against the Trump administration Wednesday.

“Nothing in these new rules helps wildlife, period. Instead, these regulatory changes seek to make protection and recovery of threatened and endangered species harder and less predictable,” Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles said.

Boyles represents lead plaintiff Center for Biological Diversity and six other groups who sued to stop a package of regulations they say will put more imperiled plants and animals at risk of extinction.

On Aug. 12, Interior Secretary Andrew Bernhardt unveiled a series of “improvements” to the Nixon-era legislation, which Trump administration officials say will eliminate “unnecessary regulatory burdens” while maintaining critical safeguards for threatened species.

The new rules allow economic factors to be considered in species listing decisions. They also make it easier to eliminate protections for species thought to be extinct by removing a requirement that scientific data “substantiate” delisting decisions.

Interior’s overhaul makes it harder to protect areas where an endangered species does not live, even if scientific evidence shows the area is important for a species’ survival. It also requires a higher standard of “reasonable certainty” that protecting an unoccupied area will contribute to a species’ survival.

The new rules permit greater reliance on plans to mitigate impacts on wildlife and habitats for findings that species are not at risk. The mitigation plans can be considered, even without evidence that planned actions will reduce threats to survival.

Additionally, the reforms changed the definitions of terms like “destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat and “environmental baseline” to raise the bar for what is considered necessary for a species’ survival. The overhaul further lifts requirements that federal agencies be consulted to assess the impacts of land management plans on at-risk species.

“The new rules move the Endangered Species Act dangerously away from its grounding in sound science that has made the act so effective – opening the door to political decisions couched as claims that threats to species are too uncertain to address,” Sierra Club staff attorney Karimah Schoenhut said in a statement Wednesday.

Today, the Endangered Species Act protects 1,600 plant and animal species with millions of acres designated as critical habitat for their survival and recovery. Since its enactment in 1973, more than 99% of species listed as threatened or endangered have fended off extinction.

Of the nearly 2,000 species listed as at risk of extinction, 47 were deemed “recovered” and taken off the list. Another 18 are now being considered for delisting.

The plaintiffs claim the Trump administration failed to disclose some rule changes before they were finalized or provide a rational basis for its decision. They say failure to study the impact of rule changes on the environment violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

They seek a permanent injunction striking down the new rules.

Plaintiffs include the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, WildEarth Guardians and the Humane Society of the United States.

Defending the new rules in a statement Wednesday, a U.S. Interior Department spokesman said the agency will be “steadfast” in implementing the “important” reforms with an unchanged goal of protecting at-risk species.

“It is unsurprising that those who repeatedly seek to weaponize the Endangered Species Act – instead of use it as a means to recover imperiled species – would choose to sue,” Interior spokesman Nick Goodwin said by email. “We will see them in court.”

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