(CN) – The U.S. Department of the Interior proposed revising a rule to the White House this week that would effectively rescind most protections for hundreds of species of wildlife listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Protections to be eliminated include the 40-year-old rule, 4(d) in the Act, which offers the same special protections for threatened species as those categorized as endangered.
“The Trump administration just issued a death sentence to nearly 300 threatened species,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which establishes and implements regulations, has broad authority under the Endangered Species Act to conserve threatened species. Section 4(d) of the ESA, which has been in effect since 1975, directs the Service to issue regulations deemed “necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of threatened species.”
The 4(d) rule can be modified to allow the Service to work on maintenance, rodent control and weeding without violating the regulations that apply to endangered species.
About 70 species in California, another 20 in Hawaii, and scores more fish, birds, mammals and plants around the country are at risk of losing special regulatory protections.
The wildlife under threat include southern sea otters, northern spotted owls, piping plovers, red knots, Yosemite toads, delta smelt, Santa Catalina Island foxes and gopher tortoises.
Interior officials believe the rule should be reinterpreted to craft protections specific to each species individually, instead of following the old interpretation of extending maximum protections to all threatened species at once. The department says National Marine Fisheries Service has been operating this way effectively and Fish and Wildlife will do so too.
As justification, the department cites a rule change in December 1993 for the coastal California gnatcatcher. In that case, the department determined activities related to the protection of coastal sage scrub habitat would not impact the habitat of the gnatcatcher.
“Nothing in these proposed revised regulations is intended to require (now or at such time as these regulations may become final) that any previous listing, delisting, or reclassification determinations or species-specific protective regulations be reevaluated on the basis of any final regulations,” the department said in the proposal.
Greenwald called 4(d) “crucial” for the protection of “iconic wildlife” and said when the Service enacted the rule that protections would be relaxed only if they “determined that fewer protections were warranted.”
According to Greenwald, the rule change would benefit major polluters and companies that operate in wildlife habitats. For example, without these protections, logging companies could begin working in nesting habitats for the northern spotted owl, Greenwald said.
“Trump is erasing America’s natural heritage to make his friends richer and allow polluters to ravage our environment,” Greenwald said.
The Department of the Interior did not return a request for comment by press time, and no further information was available on the Department’s website.
Greenwald said the proposal “came out of the blue” rather than being posted online for public discussion. The Department has not responded to his requests for clarification.
“They’ve been tight-lipped,” he said
During his term in office, Trump-appointed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, has faced scrutiny over his travel and spending habits, with some suggesting he mixes official agency trips with political fundraising events.
The department’s move to rescind the rule comes after two petitions were filed by conservative advocacy group Pacific Legal Foundation, which called the rule “illegal and counterproductive” in a public statement.
Foundation attorney Jonathan Wood wrote the petition to the service to rescind the 1975 protective regulation.
“If the Department of Interior follows through on its proposal, it will be a big win for the rule of law and species’ conservation,” Wood said.
As it exists currently, the rule “unlawfully overrules Congress’ direction to regulate endangered and threatened species differently” based on the conditions they’re in, Wood said.
But Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity said the proposed rule would undo decades of progress toward improving the environment.
“If these critical protections for threatened species are eliminated, Trump will go down in history as the extinction president,” said Greenwald.
In an email, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire promised transparency and public input when the rule is finally proposed.
“NOAA Fisheries and the Fish and Wildlife Service are working to develop regulations that improve our implementation of the Endangered Species Act so that it is clear, unambiguous, consistent and flexible to the greatest extent possible, and encourages collaborative conservation from a broad range of partners,” Shire said. “Any proposed changes will go through a full and transparent public review process that provides ample opportunity for interested parties to provide input that we will consider to help us ensure these regulations are effective in furthering the ESA’s ultimate goal – recovery of our most imperiled species to the point they no longer need federal protection.”