Next President Should Strengthen Endangered Species Act: Report

A policy report published in the journal Science calls for clarity and transparency over implementation of the Endangered Species Act, an issue accentuated by inconsistent federal decisions over listing the Pacific walrus for protections. (Photo by Joel Garlich-Miller / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

(CN) — Scientists have for years sounded the alarm on the wildlife extinction crisis. In the U.S., avoiding catastrophe will take more than reversing years of regressive policy-making — it will require bolstering landmark federal protections established decades ago, conservationists and scientists said in a report issued this week.

Numerous species of wildlife have disappeared at frighteningly rapid rates and it’s estimated that globally more than a million species face extinction, according to the policy report published in the journal Science.

For nearly five decades, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been the primary U.S. policy tool for preventing a torrent of wildlife extinction and conserving both threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats they live in.

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 has been slowly gutted by the Trump administration, which issued 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. 

Scientists said in the report Thursday the changes make it more difficult for the federal government to conserve habitats that wildlife will depend on the era of rapidly accelerating climate change. 

But simply rolling back Trump administration changes will not solve the regulatory problem facing the ESA, the report said.

University of Vermont conservation biologist Joe Roman said in a statement released with the report that the ESA must be bolstered via bipartisan legislation in Congress that also has the support of energy industry leaders.

“It’s not enough to just go back to where we were eighteen months ago; we need reform,” report co-author Roman said. “We’re not talking about revising the act itself — that legislative can of worms — but it is clear that endangered species, wildlife agencies, landowners, and citizens would all benefit by updating the regulations and policies that are used to implement the law.”

The report says clarity is needed to guide implementation of the act, as is evident in the cases seeking protections for the Pacific walrus and the Arctic ringed seal.

While the loss of ice and snow cover has imperiled both animals, the Fish & Wildlife Service decided in 2017 not to protect the walrus. The agency found climate change projections beyond 2060 were “based on speculation, rather than reliable prediction.”

But five years earlier, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed the seal as “threatened” using climate projections stretching to 2100 that sync with modeling guidelines for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Ya-Wei Li of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, lead author of the report, said that ad hoc approach by the agencies can lead to dangerously inconsistent regulatory action under the act.

“This kind of ambiguity hurts everybody and invites political interference that undercuts protections for species, erodes public confidence, triggers lawsuits that are costly for all,” Li said. “It polarizes the ESA, a law that could enjoy far more support across the political spectrum.” 

The Trump administration should disclose both data and political “principles” guiding wildlife regulation policy and explain their decisions to offer or not offer protections under act, the report said.

The administration should also clarify how it interprets “foreseeable future,” which is the categorical timeframe for determining whether to list a species as “threatened,” the report said.

“This ambiguity invites political intervention that undercuts species protection and public confidence in ESA decisions, triggers litigation that is costly for all parties, and polarizes the law,” the report said.

In another case, Fish and Wildlife extended protections to the Gunnison sage grouse on agricultural lands under the ESA 4(d) rule but declined protections for the lesser prairie chicken on the same kind of farmland.

“The agency may have had valid reasons for this discrepancy, but they never publicly explained those reasons,” authors wrote in the report.

Li said recommendations in the report will increase transparency over the Endangered Species Act process, fund sensing technology that can better track the impact of climate change and incentivize preservation of wildlife that exists on private lands. 

“But we’re also advocating for new ideas that would bring better science and more flexible approaches to the decisions the wildlife services make,” Li said. 

Report authors said most Americans see plants and wildlife as a “public good,” and whoever occupies the White House should take that into consideration.

“Think of what could happen if we got federal decision-makers, governors, conservationists, industry leaders to sit down together to help both species and landowners,” Roman said. “With the right leadership, you could get broad bipartisan support to make the Endangered Species Act an even better tool for preventing the loss of biodiversity.”

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an interview that while he agrees with the authors that Trump administration regulations should be rescinded, additional legislation isn’t necessary to improve the act.

“Given where Republicans stand on endangered species, there’s just not a lot of opportunity for bipartisan effort in Congress, nor is it needed,” Greenwald said, adding the act already has strong protections that need to be enforced in a nonpartisan manner.

Greenwald said “political interference” from Trump-appointed officials — who avoid recommendations from their own scientists — should not be the impediment to implementing the law.

“I hope the extinction crisis is an important priority for the Biden administration, if that’s in fact what we’re gonna have, because it really threatens our way of life.”

But Jacob Malcom, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife, said more is definitely needed.

“In order to save endangered and imperiled wildlife from the damage of the past four years, reverting to Obama-era regulations is an important step but is not enough by itself. We have seen unprecedented changes that undercut the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act, two bedrock environmental laws that have protected species and their habitats for decades. 

“There is a long list of additional actions needed to overturn the damage to our environment, such as restoring protections for migratory birds and halting oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” he said in an email.

He noted the report — along with robust federal funding of the Endangered Species Act — would go a long way to “strengthen the ESA in ways endangered species desperately need.”

Greenwald’s group and others sued the Trump administration in August 2019 to stop the package of rule changes to the act, claiming the rules were not properly proposed to the public before they were finalized.

U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar dismissed the lawsuit this past May with leave to amend, finding the plaintiffs failed to adequately state how they would be harmed by the new rules.

Additional plaintiffs in that case include Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, WildEarth Guardians and the Humane Society of the United States.

Also this past May, Tigar advanced a related California-led lawsuit seeking to block the Trump administration’s changes to the act, finding the states adequately established how the rules would affect their environmental and economic interests.

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