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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Trashed by Trump, habitat protections for endangered species get new life

The Biden administration moved Tuesday to dissolve two rule changes from the Trump era that lightened protections for endangered species.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Wolves, whooping cranes and other species that depend on critical habitat designations to survive and flourish got a boost Tuesday with the announcement that a pair of rules pushed through during final days of the Trump administration do not fall in line with the Endangered Species Act’s conservation goals.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service announced the move in the Federal Register and an accompanying joint statement.

“The Endangered Species Act is one of the most important conservation tools in America and provides a safety net for species that are at risk of going extinct,” Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz explained, adding that the agencies are working to “bring the implementation of the act back into alignment with its original intent and purpose — protecting and recovering America’s biological heritage for future generations.”

Former President Donald Trump had initiated the rollbacks in December 2020 after losing reelection, capping off a record that conservationist groups and wildlife advocates held up as having the fewest number of endangered species listed since President Ronald Reagan.

One of the changes allowed the government to refuse to protect the habitats of endangered species if the area in question proved promising for economic development; the second revised the definition of “critical habitat” to refer only to the ecosystem presently occupied by a given species rather than its historical range.

The changes to habitat designation were seen as wins for power plant owners, manufacturers, developers and pipeline companies whose business operations could be constricted by protected habitats. A spokeswoman for the National Mining Association indicated Tuesday that the industry association would be submitting input on Biden’s revision as part of a 30-day period for public comment. The group had previously engaged in the comment period for the two changes to the Endangered Species Act under Trump, voicing support.

President Joe Biden ordered his administration to review such Trump environmental policies shortly after taking office, leading officials from both agencies to determine that they were not consistent with environmental objectives.

“Most endangered species have lost range, often leading to population fragmentation that increases risk of extinction,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement Tuesday. “There’s no way to save or recover species without protecting their habitat, including in places where they no longer occur and in areas that may need restoration. The Endangered Species Act explicitly recognized this.”

Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Janet Coit emphasized Tuesday that nixing Trump's changes “will improve our ability to use the tool of critical habitat designation appropriately and effectively to conserve listed species.” 

Rebecca Riley, managing director of the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, also praised the Biden administration’s new rule proposals bus said she thinks there is more Trump-era damage to undo. Other terms within the Endangered Species Act that were redefined by agencies under Trump include “foreseeable future” when defining threatened species — those that likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future — and “adverse modification” in the context of the requiring that federal agencies ensure that their actions do not harm critical habitat.

“While today’s proposals mark an important step toward reversing the damage done by the Trump administration, many ESA rollbacks remain in place and continue to harm imperiled species, worsening the ongoing biodiversity crisis,” Riley said in a statement. “The Biden administration must move quickly to fully restore ESA protections before it is too late.” 

Lucas Rhoads, an NRDC staff attorney, further noted Tuesday that critical habitat designations have proved critical in the protection and recovery of species such as the gray wolf, Florida manatee, northern spotted owl and whooping crane.

Industry groups like the Independent Petroleum Association of America meanwhile have framed the Endangered Species Act as an outdated law.

“It was last renewed by Congress in 1988, meaning it has been more than 25 years since Congress last made any substantial updates to the 1973 ESA law,” the association says on its site. “Today, with only a two percent recovery rate, the Endangered Species Act is failing to achieve its fundamental purpose of species recovery. Instead, the ESA law has evolved into legal tool used by some environmental organizations to advance an agenda that impedes American oil and natural gas production — destroying economic growth and job creation, while diverting hundreds of millions of American taxpayer dollars away from species recovery.”

Trump was midway through his single term when the U.S. Supreme Court told Fish and Wildlife in 2018 that it needed to define the term habitat in relation to the extremely endangered dusky gopher frog. 

The frog was native to the Southeast and flourished in temporary ponds endemic to the area. At the time of the ruling, the frogs only existed in one such pond in Mississippi, having extirpated from other areas of its traditional range. 

Fish and Wildlife wanted to create other ponds on private land in Louisiana. That prompted a lawsuit by the property owner, who said such a program impinged on property rights.

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Categories / Environment, Government, National

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