White House Waters Down Definition of Critical Habitat for Endangered Species

FILE – This Aug. 19, 2015, file photo, shows a monarch butterfly in Vista, Calif. The western monarch butterfly population wintering along California’s coast remained critically low for the second year in a row, a count by an environmental group released Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, showed. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

(CN) — With Inauguration Day looming, the lame-duck Trump administration continues to spend political capital on weakening the Endangered Species Act, the latest move a redefining of “critical habitat” as only referring to a given species’ presently occupied ecosystem rather than its historical range. 

While the move outraged conservationist groups and wildlife advocates, they also acknowledge that the incoming Biden administration is likely to render this latest move an exercise in futility. 

“We are going to be pushing the Biden administration to rescind everything the Trump administration has done,” said Stephanie Kurose, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Joe Biden will need to work to lock in progress on these issues so future presidents can’t simply undo them with a stroke of the pen.”

Part of that, according to environmental activists, will require acts of Congress, which is why the special election in Georgia on Jan. 5 — which will determine whether the GOP hangs on to the Senate — is so paramount. 

The Trump administration has been disastrous for endangered species, Kurose said. 

“The Trump administration has listed the fewest number of species since President Ronald Reagan,” Kurose said. “It hasn’t designated critical habitat areas for species that need and have actively rolled back huge, fundamental parts of the Endangered Species Act itself, catering to industry at the expense of wildlife.”

Kurose also acknowledged the damage a one-term president can do is minimal, given that many of their policy prescriptions do not have sufficient time to take hold. 

Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s attempts to weaken endangered species protections for species that are severely threatened could have terrible real-world consequences, wildlife advocates say. 

For instance, the Trump administration announced Tuesday that while monarch butterflies qualify to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has other priorities — it’s officially known as a “warranted but precluded” listing. 

“Today’s decision is an acknowledgment that monarch butterflies are in serious trouble, but it also delays critically needed action to help rescue the species,” said Sylvia Fallon, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Monarch butterfly populations are in steep decline in the United States. Recent counts show an 85% decline in the eastern U.S. population that overwinters in Mexico and a 99% decline in the western population that overwinters in California. 

Advocates say the time is now to list the butterfly and designate areas of critical habitat for the species. 

“In acknowledging that listing is needed, but still avoiding that decision, the Trump administration has placed Monsanto profits above monarchs,” said George Kimbrell, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “The Biden administration must follow the law and science and protect them.”

Kimbrell mentions Monsanto because wildlife advocates and scientists believe the decline of Monarch butterflies is closely tied to the increased use of an herbicide to eradicate milkweed, which is critical to monarch butterfly reproduction. 

The Trump administration has made much of deals to get farmers to plant more milkweed while also getting it to grow in other public places, but advocates say such programs are insufficient. 

“Monarchs are capable of rebounding, but in order to do so they need the right conditions—including abundant milkweed and other nectar sources,” Fallon said. 

Better agricultural practices not so heavily reliant on pesticides is one area, but critical habitat designations are another important tool that is being taken off the table, advocates said. 

Other species such as grizzly bears and whooping cranes need critical habitat designations to survive and flourish. 

“Habitat designations ensure species don’t just flourish, but they recover,” Kurose said, adding recovery is the goal outlined by the Endangered Species Act itself. 

The habitat designation definition fight began at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, when the court told Fish and Wildlife 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. 

Tuesday’s designation takes up the property owner’s preferred interpretation of the critical habitat, in that it can only apply to where the animal or plant currently lives rather than a historical range. Furthermore, while the monarch butterfly has been put on a waiting list, it is the Biden administration that will ultimately determine the duration of that wait. 

Regarding critical habitat designations, the question becomes whether the Biden administration views that designation as final as the Trump administration has a little more than a month to exert its sway. 

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