Trump Administration Takes Aim At Endangered Species Act

The Trump administration on Thursday proposed significant changes to how it implements the Endangered Species Act, one of America’s most important laws for protecting plants and animals, in a move that environmentalists fear could be a death sentence for species. 

The planned overhaul of the bedrock conservation law includes scrapping the so-called “blanket section 4(d) rule,” which automatically extends the Endangered Species Act’s protections to plants and animals listed as threatened. The changes would also make it easier to remove recovered species from the protected list and would revise how federal agencies go about designating habitat that’s critical to the long-term survival of species.

Federal officials announced the proposals Thursday during a pair of briefings, one for media and another for stakeholders.

David Bernhardt, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, told reporters that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which administer the Endangered Species Act, are looking to “simplify and create a more predictable regulatory environment in our traditional conservation process while maintaining our interest and responsibility to protect species.”

The 1973 law was passed with strong bipartisan support and has an impressive record of bringing species like the bald eagle and the humpback whale back from the brink of extinction. Today it provides protections for more than 1,600 plants and animals, as well as the habitats critical to their survival.

Brett Hartl, director of government affairs for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said that the Trump administration’s proposal “turns the extinction-prevention tool of the Endangered Species Act into a rubber stamp for powerful corporate interests.”

While the changes are significant, they come as little surprise. Republicans have been working for years to undermine the law, arguing that it hinders economic development.

Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told E&E News that it might be time for lawmakers to “start over again” and “repeal it and replace” the act. At a congressional hearing last year, Greg Sheehan, the principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, testified in support of a package of GOP-led bills targeting the Endangered Species Act, saying the proposals “seek to improve implementation” of the law.

Earlier this week, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) ― a vocal critic of the act ― introduced a draft bill that would give more power to states to handle species management and recovery in order to increase “regulatory certainty for landowners.” In his opening remarks, Barrasso rolled out a favorite point of Endangered Species Act opponents: that of the 2,393 species listed as threatened or endangered, only 54 ― or approximately 3 percent ― have been delisted because of their recovery. A doctor with those numbers, he said, would “deserve to lose” their medical license.

The other side of that argument is that the law has been successful in preventing 99 percent of listed species from going extinct.

Kate Sheppard contributed to this report. 

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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