The undoing of the Endangered Species Act

The undoing of the Endangered Species Act
© Pixabay

The Trump administration, aided by Citizens United, is poised to fundamentally cripple the broadly supported Endangered Species Act, all in the name of chasing fossil fuels, border walls, and other special interests.

In 1973, Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act (ESA) with widespread bi-partisan support. Signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon, the ESA provided sweeping protection for endangered species and their habitats, reflecting the era’s broad based concern for environmental conservation and protection.

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The act currently protects more than 1,600 plant and animal species in the U.S., and has prevented extinction of approximately 99 percent of species covered under the act. Its protections often have a spiraling effect, benefiting full habitats and the animals and plants within them. Recent polls show that 90 percent of Americans, including Republicans, support the ESA.

 

Despite its popularity, special interests have hijacked the ESA. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United readied the first special interest assault on the ESA. 

The Center for Biological Diversity documents how Republicans (many with ties to oil and gas and big agriculture) ramped up legislative attacks on the act in the years following the court’s decision in Citizens United. In addition to direct challenges, Republican efforts also included shadowy riders in must-pass spending or defense bills as a way to override the ESA’s protections. These types of riders have reduced or removed protections for the gray wolf, lesser prairie chicken, sage grouse, several African "trophy animals," and more. 

In a report tracking legislation through 2015, five Republicans legislators with ties to special interests led about 25 percent of the efforts against the ESA.

The election of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand urges opposition to Kavanaugh: Fight for abortion rights 'is now or never' Trump claims tariffs on foreign nations will rescue US steel industry: report Bannon announces pro-Trump movie, operation team ahead of midterms: report MORE in 2016 along with a Republican-led Congress has emboldened even more aggressive attacks on the ESA. In 2017, the Republican-controlled Congress introduced numerous pieces of legislation attacking and weakening the ESA. In powerful attacks to gut the ESA, current bills in Congress would, among other things, grant the Fish and Wildlife Service authority to deny protections based on economic considerations (rather than based solely on scientific findings as is required), limit legal recourse for enforcing protections, and turn fossil fuel development on federal land over to states as a way to exempt federal ESA review.

The Trump administration has also attacked the ESA. Without regard to environmental impacts, Trump’s ill-founded border wall would destroy habitats and put many threatened and endangered species at risk. 

Approximately 50 at risk species that live near the border have so far survived due to efforts by people on both sides of the border. Ocelots, black bears, desert bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn antelope, desert tortoises, birds and many more endangered species face existential threats from being separated and isolated from populations due to a Border Wall. Similarly, the border wall threat to the jaguar, considered an “apex predator” critical to survival of other species, would put an entire ecological system at risk. 

The administration’s ignorant approach to climate science also fundamentally undermines the ESA. Scientists recognize that more species are at risk today than ever before because of climate change’s long term impact on sea-level rise, ice melt and freshwater destruction. Yet, in applications to address 25 threatened species, Trump’s Interior Department disregarded accepted science and used short-term projections of threats and alleged “uncertainty” and “speculation” about long-term impacts of climate change to justify its refusal to list any of the 25 as endangered or threatened.

Finally, the administration has slashed budget spending for the Fish and Wildlife Service in general, which will undercut resources available to protect endangered species (more than 500 species of which are waiting for a protection determination and are at risk of extinction in the meantime).

Even Republican legislators disregarded Trump’s proposed cuts to a specific ESA program — the Endangered Species Conservation Fund, a crucial program providing grants to states for conservation planning and projects.

The anti-ESA movement under Trump and this Republican Congress will have unfortunate longstanding consequences. Motivated by Citizens United special interest money, their long-term, full on assault of the ESA jeopardizes a wealth of different animal and plant species along with rich bio-diverse habitats all for the benefit of their short-term special interests.

Tracy Stein, J.D., is a board member of Earth Day Initiative and works with her town’s sustainability advisory board. She is also a researcher for Lawyers for Good Government.