Species Continue to Struggle Under Trump, Group Says

Leatherback sea turtle at the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Virgin Islands (Photo by Claudia Lombard, USFWS)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The two federal agencies responsible for listing endangered and threatened species announced new regulations Tuesday that continue the Trump administration’s anti-environment agenda, according to a conservation group. The Center for Biological Diversity had petitioned for Endangered Species Act protections for several of these species.

“The Trump administration is catering to industry interests and dooming wildlife critical to the health of our environment to extinction,” CBD senior scientist Tierra Curry said. “We’ll keep fighting these wrongheaded decisions because we know Americans value our natural heritage and environmental health over short-term profits.”

The NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that a petition to list a subpopulation of the Western Atlantic Leatherback Turtle as a distinct population segment or DPS, and to have the DPS listed as threatened, may be warranted after its 90-day review. The agency has therefore initiated a 12-month review. If the petitioned action is finalized, it would actually represent a downlisting for these turtles because the entire species was listed as endangered in 1970. The petition was filed by the Blue Water Fisherman’s Association. The Endangered Species Act imposes restrictions on fishery activities that might impact sea turtles, including the mandated use of turtle excluder devices in trawl fisheries, large circle hooks in longline fisheries, and area closures for gillnets.

The leatherback is regulated by the NMFS as a marine species, though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also regulates the turtles when they come ashore to lay eggs. “NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct a status review of the leatherback turtle throughout its range to determine if DPSs do exist and the status of each under the ESA. NOAA Fisheries and USFWS will examine the application of the joint DPS policy in light of significant new information that has become available since the original (range wide) listing of the species. If the information indicates the existence of multiple DPSs to be considered for listing under the ESA, the status review team will analyze extinction risk for each DPS using information on demographic factors and the ESA section 4(a)(1) listing factors,” NOAA fisheries spokesperson Katherine Brogan said. Section 4(a)(1) is used to determine if a species will be listed as threatened or endangered.

Leatherbacks can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and grow up to six and half feet long. They are the largest turtle and one of the longest living reptiles in the world, according to the NMFS. Instead of a hard shell, it has a leathery carapace. Extensive efforts to mitigate fishing bycatch and to protect beach nesting sites have helped stabilize some populations of these turtles. But plastics and balloons in the oceans also threaten them, as they are mistaken for the jellyfish that is a main prey of the turtles. The agency estimates that only one in a thousand hatchlings survives.

“Protective regulations apply the protections for endangered species to threatened sea turtles. Therefore, endangered and threatened sea turtles are similarly protected under the ESA,” Brogan said. However, downlisting a species from endangered to threatened is commonly seen as a step toward eventually delisting the species, removing it from ESA protections, and threatened status also allows for “take” injury/death exceptions that are not allowed for endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency tasked with protecting land-based species, announced a 12-month finding Tuesday for four species that had previously survived the first hurdle in the Endangered Species Act listing process. Though the agency had found that the separate petitions to list the four species had merited more study for three of the species, the new findings for the four species are all “not warranted” for listing under the ESA.

The white-tailed prairie dog is the exception, in that it survived the first listing hurdle due to court intervention.

White-tailed prairie dog

The agency received a petition to list the white-tailed prairie dog as endangered from the Center for Native Ecosystems, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, American Lands Alliance, Forest Guardians, the Ecology Center, Sinapu, and Terry Williams in July 2002.

The agency published its “not substantial” 90-day petition finding in November 2004, but was challenged in court and agreed to submit a 12-month finding. The agency again denied protection in its 2010 “not warranted” finding, but the court handed the finding back to the agency for reconsideration in 2014. The finding announced Tuesday again rules the prairie dog does not warrant ESA protection, noting that the populations are in “high overall condition” with “multiple resilient populations.” Prairie dogs are the main prey of black-footed ferrets, which are listed under the ESA due to loss of habitat and prey due to grassland conversion to agricultural uses, prairie dog eradication programs, and non-native diseases.

The USFWS was petitioned on behalf of the blackfin sucker in April 2010 by the CBD, Alabama Rivers Alliance, Clinch Coalition, Dogwood Alliance, Gulf Restoration Network, Tennessee Forests Council and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. The 90-petition finding, published in September 2011, concluded that the petition presented substantial information indicating the listing could be warranted. The agency now finds that the listing is not warranted. Small stream fish such as the blackfin sucker, must contend with agricultural pollution and siltation due to water control projects. This fish also has a very restricted range, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List.

The CBD petitioned on behalf of the Mohave shoulderband snail in January 2014. The agency published a “substantial” 90-day finding on the petition in April 2015, and entered a settlement agreement with the CBD to publish a 12-month finding by November 2017. The finding announced Tuesday is a determination by the agency that listing is “not warranted.” The main threat to this snail is hard rock mining, according to the agency. This snail is only found in less than eight square miles on Soledad Mountain and two nearby peaks, the CBD said, and mining claims threaten all of its range.

“The failure to protect this clearly endangered snail is a completely bogus decision that is typical of the Trump administration’s war on science and endangered species,” Curry said. “The job of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to protect endangered wildlife, including humble but incredibly important tiny animals like snails. But under Trump, instead of protecting wildlife the agency is catering to industry interests.”

The remaining species, the Woodville Karst cave crayfish was also petitioned by the CBD (April 2010), and the agency again published a 90-day finding (September 2011) that the petition presented substantial information indicating that listing could be warranted.  More than six years later, the agency has announced that its 12-month finding has concluded that ESA listing is “not warranted.” The crayfish live in limestone caves in Florida, and they are experiencing threats from land-use activities, alterations of waterways, water withdrawal, and sea-level rise, according to the agency. The agency maintains that “since the species lives at significant spring depths and can move among springs and sinks in the underground system,” it is likely to survive without ESA listing.

“The Trump administration keeps sticking its head in the sand when it comes to protecting endangered species, along with the rest of us, from sea-level rise,” CBD’s Florida director, Jaclyn Lopez, said. “The Trump administration’s hostility to wildlife, from crayfish to walruses, threatens the precious natural heritage of our country.”

Both the NMFS and USFWS proposed regulations are scheduled to publish Dec. 6, 2017. The USFWS “not warranted” findings for the four species constitute the end of the listing process as far as the agency is concerned unless new information is received, though no formal comment period has been established. The NMFS finding on the leatherback requests public comments and information for sixty days after the publication date.

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