White House Rolls Out Plan to Weaken Endangered Species Act

A bald eagle takes flight at the Museum of the Shenandaoh Valley in Winchester, Va., on Feb. 1, 2016. (Scott Mason/The Winchester Star via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration on Monday finalized changes to eviscerate enforcement of the landmark Endangered Species Act, which is credited with helping to save animals like the American bald eagle and California condor.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the alterations would make sweeping changes to the 1973 law enacted under the Richard Nixon administration.

Specifically, he said the changes will weaken three parts of the law, which protects more than 1,600 species in the U.S.

One change will affect the consultation process used to prevent harm to endangered species from federal activities. Another will eliminate protections for wildlife newly designated as threatened, according to Hartl, and the final change will affect how agencies designate critical habitats and will weaken a listing process for imperiled species.

“Collectively, they weaken the law dramatically,” Hartl said in an interview Monday. “The law is supposed to give the endangered species the benefit of the doubt, because if you don’t, they’ll go extinct.”

Hartl said the revamped enforcement regulations will enable industrial development to move forward with less scrutiny over environmental impact.

“It basically undermines the power of the EPA and makes it far more business friendly at the expense of the recovery and enhancement of the Endangered Species Act,” Hartl said. “It’s about putting the burden of proof on endangered species in order to expedite industry development and it’s very similar to other Trump actions in that regard.”

But Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the changes are meant to increase transparency and effectiveness.

“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal—recovery of our rarest species. The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” Bernhardt said in a statement Monday “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”

The Center for Biological Diversity pledged that the changes will be challenged in court. Noah Greenwald, the group’s endangered species director, said they could signal the beginning of the end for species like the monarch butterfly and wolverine.

The new rules will also prohibit the designation of critical habitat for species threatened by climate change, although in many cases those animals are already threatened by habitat destruction.

“These changes crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections for America’s most vulnerable wildlife,” Greenwald said in a statement. “We’ll fight the Trump administration in court to block this rewrite, which only serves the oil industry and other polluters who see endangered species as pesky inconveniences.”

The White House’s finalization of the changes comes after a recent United Nations report counted more than 1 million species at risk of extinction.

Derek Goldman of the Endangered Species Coalition said the changes will enable Secretary Bernhardt’s friends in industry to move forward on development projects.

“The Trump administration is coming out with their extinction plan to weaken the Endangered Species Act, our safety net for fish and wildlife on the brink of extinction,” Goldman said in an interview Monday.

Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, called the rollbacks illegal.

“This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal. We’ll see the Trump administration in court about it,” Caputo said in a statement.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a phone conference Monday their respective states would also be challenging the rollbacks in court.

The states will sue over the changes on multiple grounds, including claiming they are arbitrary and capricious, violate the text and purpose of the Endangered Species Act, and were not given a public comment period.

“I know that gutting the Endangered Species Act sounds like a plan from a cartoon villain, not the work of the president of the United States, but unfortunately that is what we’re dealing with today,” Healey said.

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